Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of E.J. Peck
Among the Eskimos
by the Rev. Arthur Lewis, M.A.

New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1904.

Chapter XVI. Behind the Scenes

"I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me."

WE have seen a great deal of the outward circumstances surrounding the lives of the missionaries in Cumberland Sound; we have also seen something of their work and influence upon the Eskimos. Shall we in this present chapter look a little more closely at their own lives, penetrating into their houses, and, more than that, into the thoughts of their hearts?

On August 28, 1898, the two workers, Messrs. Peck and Sampson, were reinforced by the arrival of Mr. Julian William Bilby. "Great was our joy. Truly we have not been forgotten, nor has our work in these desert wastes. How delightful to clasp the hand of a brother in Christ and to feel that another of God's light-bearers has come to illuminate the darkness."

There is a note struck in this simple extract from a diary which ought to awaken a responsive chord in every reader. "Truly we have not been forgotten." Is there a danger of this? Perhaps so on the part of too many people. At any rate the solitary worker is apt to think so, as John the Baptist did when he was in prison; especially if he is in a veritable icy prison which is penetrated only once a year by rays from the outer world, and he may be excused in having his moments of despondency which call to the Christian Church for the support of prayer.

On the other hand we can look into the heart of the messenger of the Gospel and see how, in his moments of confidence, he is upheld by the knowledge of prayerful sympathy. One summer, on the departure of the annual ship, Mr. Peck wrote: "The Alert left to-day. I have written altogether about 120 letters and have also sent quite a number of circular letters. Thank God for the number of praying friends in the home land. Isolated we truly are here, but from a spiritual point of view we are compassed about with a host of helpers. Cut off we are indeed from loved ones, with no possible opportunity of hearing from them for over eleven months. United, however, we are to a never dying Friend, whose presence more than fills up the gap and void left in our hearts by the loss of dear ones."

At other times frequent notes are found concerning the 24th day of each month and the comfort which it brings. "To-day is the day of days. Thousands are praying for us. Many are mindful of my brethren, myself and the work." This thought comes to him again and again whether he is on the trackless deep or the voyage to or from Cumberland Sound, or in the loneliness of toil and danger endured for Christ in the Mission. And the reason is that that is the day appointed in the Church Missionary Society's cycle of prayer for petitions to be offered for the vast cold and dark regions which extend within the Arctic circle, and for the missionaries among the Red Indians and Eskimos that they may be supported in their great hardships and loneliness. So on that day in each month Mr. Peck and his colleagues were comforted because they were sure that some friends, at any rate, were holding up their hands for the fight. It would be an untold blessing to the Church of Christ and the world, if many more were found to use that cycle and make it a basis also for acquiring information and taking a systematic interest in the evangelization of the nations.

The Alert which brought Mr. Bilby also brought a quantity of timber. This was sent through Mr. Malaher and the Missionary Leaves Association. It was most acceptable, as it helped the missionaries to arrange their dwelling satisfactorily for the coming winter. They were able to enlarge the old building in which they had been living and to make it fit for the meetings of the Eskimos, and the new building, which they had in a spirit of self-denial given up for that purpose, they were now to take possession of and make themselves a little more comfortable than they had been.

We have in former chapters peeped behind the scenes and looked at the daily routine of the missionary's life. It is consequently now unnecessary to do so again, but it may be mentioned that Mr. Peck's time was to some extent occupied by instructing the newly arrived colleague in the Eskimo language.

Each of the three brethren was more or less proficient in the art of cooking, and they took it in turn, week and week about, to be responsible for the culinary department. Sometimes there was not much in the way of meat at any rate on which the chef could display his talents. This was rather trying. "What would friends at home do I wonder," writes Mr. Peck, "if they had no butchers' shops to go to for their Christmas dinner." With this festive season in the near prospect he and Mr. Sampson had been searching for game some five miles out, but alas! the sight of only a few tracks was all that rewarded their effort. However, failure this time made them more wary another Christmas. Time was indeed taken by the forelock. "What did we have for dinner? asks the cunning missionary in triumph." Why, jugged hare and plum pudding--quite a royal repast. The plum pudding was a gift sent out by a kind friend in England.

And the hare? Well some weeks ago we got it, and being in a frozen condition we saved it carefully for Christmas. Two days ago I hung it up near the stove to thaw. Before this it was frozen as hard as a stone." As fortune would have it, however, they did not after all depend upon this particular hare, for on Christmas Eve an Eskimo had brought them in another. This incident of the frozen hare reminds us of another dish which was Mr. Peck's own speciality. We can fancy him saying: "Now I have to be starting early to-morrow morning to look up those Eskimos on the ice. So I must make a good supply of Arctic balls."

"What do you mean by Arctic balls?" we can imagine the new arrival asking.

"Oh, they are a splendid dish for a journey. You make them of preserved meat, bread-crumbs, cooked preserved potatoes, and a little flour. All these ingredients you must mix up into a mash and then divide them up into balls of convenient size. Let them freeze (n.b., there is no difficulty in this) and they will keep indefinitely. On arrival at snow houses all you have to do is to put them into a frying-pan with a little grease or water to prevent them sticking, and in a few minutes with the aid of your methylated spirit lamp you thaw them. Then proceed to make on excellent meal."

This recipe might be recommended to English housekeepers, but they have not always got a freezing house at hand.

Sometimes the office of cook was anything but a sinecure. This was especially the case when missionaries were keeping open house for their Eskimo friends, either at such a season as Christmas when large gatherings came together or during times of scarcity. Again culling from Mr. Peck's diary we read: "This being my week as cook and general housekeeper I spent a very busy time, especially as we tried to help these poor starving people. Large kettles of pea soup were made three days in the week, which helped in some measure." And we have seen in the last chapter that sometimes in this way their relief work amounted to feeding twenty families daily. In missionary fields it is more possible than at home to realize that the word minister means servant.

There is one note concerning the day's routine which should not be forgotten. It is that after the i o'clock dinner there was always a time allotted for recreative reading. The ship brought out annually a supply of newspapers and .periodicals. These were carefully arranged in chronological order, the oldest being on the top and the newest at the bottom of the pile. This was the order in which they were to be read. So in November 1898 Mr. Peck writes: "We are reading now the numbers for November 1897, and somehow we seem to enjoy them as much as if they were this year's issues instead of being a year old." After all, the missionaries had only to put their birthdays back one year in imagination and then they had their daily paper as regularly as the frequenter of a London club. Surely this was not a very strong flight of imagination! At any rate it would not have been if they had been of the gentler sex. But it was not only newspapers and magazines that were treated in this way. Friends of the missionaries at home kept them supplied with a monthly mail. How is that possible? We listen to Mr. Peck as he says: "I read (on November 1) two letters which are full of comfort. Kind friends sent me several packets. The month in which they are to be read is marked on the outside of the envelopes. I have therefore a monthly mail so to speak, which will take me to next July. How full of prayerful thought these letters are. They bring one very close to the love and sympathy of God's loved ones in the homeland." Again speaking of these letters at another time he says: "I look forward to the time appointed for opening letters with many longings of heart, and I must confess that at times I feel like the greedy boy who wishes to eat the whole of the cake at one sitting."

And yet once more it is impossible to refrain from dwelling upon this very simple, yet very helpful comfort given to God's servants. It is the record in the diary of a new year's eve. "We passed from the old into the new year in a right happy manner. Friends--and thoughtful ones they are--sent me some letters for the new year. I, however, took the liberty of opening half of these before 12 p.m. and the remainder after. How cheered, comforted and strengthened I felt by the perusal of these loving messages my pen fails to tell." Similarly Christmas Day was brightened. How is it spent? In various ways. "First the dear ones at home are carried in prayer to God, and then with feverish expectation I opened some parcels which were marked: 'not to be opened till Christmas Day.' Friends can have no conception how much their thoughtful kindness cheered and comforted our souls." At another time we read: "We tried to enliven ourselves with the musical box. This, the gift of a kind friend, has helped to cheer us up not a little and is a source of great pleasure to the Eskimos."

But we must leave these interesting pictures, merely exhorting the reader to do something to cheer and strengthen those who are endeavouring themselves to bring gladness into the solitary place. We never hear any complaint come from the lips or pen of Mr. Peck concerning his separation from his family at home. We have to read between the lines when he describes his eagerness for the arrival of the Alert; when we see him meditating in his lonely walks upon the ice; or when he tells us that he has been drawn to think much of his little daughter. But it is not very difficult to interpret one passage from his diary and to understand something of what this separation meant to him. On one of his journeys in March 1899 he writes: "Four hours' travel brought us to a band of Arctic wanderers whose snow houses were situated near a barren and rugged island. Some of the little children who had noticed our sledges coming in the distance came out to meet me. These little ones we had taught from time to time of the Saviour's love, and it is one of the brightest spots in our life here to know that we are planting the seed of immortal truth in their hearts and that many of them seem to be drawn to the loving Saviour. Perhaps I have a tender place in my heart for these little Eskimos, seeing that the bright faces of my own treasures are ever standing out as a living picture before my mind's eye." There is something pathetic in thinking of the demonstration of love which would be lavished upon his own children, and which the barrier of distance diverts to the heathen children. It is a lesson for us all. God's intention in permitting trial of any kind to come upon us is not that we should dry up and shrivel and become unfruitful, but rather expand in softened sympathy to all around.

But sometimes there is no need to read between the lines of what is written. After leaving Peterhead on one of his return journeys to Blacklead Island when he had been a day or two in the brave little Alert, Mr. Peck's heart is full of the thoughts of those who are left behind; it has been lacerated, as it were, by the separation. But so far from any sort of grumble or complaint, he says. "A need of heavenly support and comfort creates and keeps up a praying spirit. Thank God for this. We give up only to receive; there is a loss which is a gain."

And now even at the risk of possibly repeating something that has been said before it will not be out of place to give a description of the missionaries' surroundings written by Mr. Peck himself. "Our island home may be truly called a picture of complete desolation. It consists of barren rocks swept by fierce gales. The snow is packed many feet deep in the holes and gullies. Ice along the shore is piled up in some places twelve feet high. This remarkable effect is caused by the action of winds and tides. No tree or plant gladdens the eye or heart. Eskimo dwellings, like mounds of snow, are scattered about in every direction. Ravenous dogs are ever on the lookout for a morsel. Eskimos--some at least look more like wild beasts than human beings in their filthy and bulky garments. Such is the scene upon which the eye rests day after day and week after week.

"How can we stand the rigour of such a climate and keep up a healthy mental tone in such surroundings? We must have for one thing a proper dwelling. This we have been able through the kindness of friends to obtain, and the room in which I write this is, even in spite of the intense cold, comfortable. Our house, which is divided into three compartments, viz., two dwelling rooms and a kitchen (or general reception room), all on the ground floor, is made as follows: First the frame of the house itself, next a coating of tarred felt outside the frame. Boards cover the felt, and canvas, well-painted, covers the boards. Outside the canvas again is a wall of snow four feet thick which breaks the fury of the wind in a surprising manner.

"Coming now to the inside of the frame we have a packing of moss which we were able to gather in the summer. Inside the moss is the inner lining of boards which are tongued and grooved. Next comes a lining of calico and then a nice bright wall paper is pasted on this. Thus we have from inside to outside, first, wall paper; second, calico; third, boards; fourth, moss; fifth, tarred felting; sixth, outer boards; seventh, painted canvas; eighth, a wall of snow. The windows of the house are double, with a sliding arrangement for ventilation on the outside window. The inner window is fitted with hinges so that they can be opened or shut at pleasure."

"A slow-combustion stove, fitted near the partition which divides our dwelling-rooms, is used for heating both places, although we have an oil stove to augment the heat when necessary. In the kitchen we use an' Eagle' range with a heat indicator fitted on the oven. This we have found a great boon as we need not open the oven and so let in a body of cold air. As every bit of coal and coke, and every drop of paraffin oil must come out from home, it is, of course, a matter of great importance to obtain as much heat as possible with a moderate consumption of fuel. We think we have gained this desirable object in the stoves mentioned, as our yearly consumption of coal for these does not exceed seven tons."

"We make our surroundings as bright and cheerful as possible. Pictures, artificial flowers, bright texts, photos of loved ones, adorn the walls of our dwelling rooms, and it is indeed a striking and most pleasant contrast to the desert waste outside." We need not follow this description in the details of daily routine and of food. For we already know much about these matters. But it will be well for us to think about Mr. Peck's words of caution concerning the life which he has been depicting. "Want of change, the sense of isolation, the hungering for just a word of loved ones, continual contact with a people whose lot is often one of extreme privation, the possibility of magnifying little differences or seeming grievances with a colleague, which in other circumstances or surroundings would soon be lost sight of--these are factors, and sometimes weighty ones too, which try what manner of men we are. On the other hand we have a good school for faith, prayer, and patience. There are times when one is brought, so to speak, in contact with the heavenly powers; God becomes a reality, faith is strengthened, and hope is brightened."

It is impossible, however, to exhaust in one description the different kinds of trials that beset any life. For instance, we might think that the home which we have had vividly brought into our view would be proof against the variations of weather and thermometer that even Cumberland Sound could produce. But it is not so. Even in January we read of a most wonderful and by no means agreeable change of weather which took place: "A warm wave of air has been wafted along here by the heavy southerly gale, and the consequence is that we are in a most uncomfortable state. A kind of rime forms on the inside of our roof, chiefly on account of the steam issuing from the kettles, etc. This is thawing and dropping down in every direction. The snow porches which we have had built outside our doors are falling down and altogether we are in a lively condition."

Probably we have seen sufficient now of the inner thoughts and outward life of the missionaries at Blacklead Island to sympathize with them to some extent and to feel thankful that our lot is cast in a pleasanter land. But let us see that our sympathy is of a practical kind. If it is not, we shall forget. If it is practical and influences our lives by causing us to pray, to work and give gifts, it will go on deepening and widening until it takes in not merely the missionaries, but their Eskimos; not the Eskimos only, but barbarian and Scythian, bond and free. We shall recognize more and more that Mr. Peck's work is our work, that he is our representative, that we are responsible.

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