The most unforgettable character I ever met!
When I congratulated Jessie on the fine flavour of the new potatoes and other vegetables in the delicious stew she served, on the day the boys and I arrived in Fort George, B.C. August 8th 1913, she corrected me. "Those things, Helen," said she, "all came from old Mr. Yeats' garden at the Foothills. We used up all our early stuff long ago, and our potatoes will not be ready for some time yet. The old man is quite a character. You ought to make George take you out to see the house he built, all by himself, and the only tools he had were an axe and a cross-cut saw."
I did not meet Mr. Yeats for more than two years later, nor did I see the house that he had built, (except in the distance) until another year had passed, Various persons tried to explain Mr. Yeats to me. Some said, "He's a very funny old chap, Scottish, independent, good mannered and seems to like his own company best." I did know that he was sensitive among strangers. He was quite bald on the top, with a thick gray-brown curly fringe covering the rest of his head, and he wore allover whiskers of the same colour and curl. But, on the exact centre of his head there stood up a wen growth like a section of a big rosy candle. The youngsters of the town likened it to the comic Happy Hooligan's tomato-can hat. He had honest eyes and good features behind the whiskers.
Mr. Yeats was a strong adherent of the Presbyterian faith, but he avoided going to church because he would need to doff his hat and expose the wen which he felt would be a disturbing element and a detriment to the service. Occasionally on a Social Evening, he would come in and sit at the back with other shy one. I had seen him at a distance. He was nearly six feet in height, straight as a drill sergeant, and he moved as lightly as a dancer. I knew exactly where he lived and could see the spot from my back door. It was close to one of the V-shaped draws which bordered the Foothills.
We had been given permission to use the old cattle corral for garden purposes and had it ploughed up together with the land around the house, making a total of a half acre. Spring opened early in 1915 and I was so ambitious to get things started that we planted some potatoes on the 3rd of April. All my life I had been interested in growing things and being able to identify the young seedlings, but Mac had not the same feelings for digging and planting, nor did he know vegetables or flowers from weeds until they showed their colours.
This Spring I watched anxiously for the first green shoots, while dreading to find a white frost. As I went in and out about my work, I had a habit of glancing towards the Foothills, since the town and all our interest lay in that direction. One morning about the first of May, I was horrified to see a flaming snake of fire leaping towards the draw, where it fanned out like an explosion, and in seconds the hilltop was ablaze. A few minutes later an automobile raced up Third Avenue, and I knew it was headed for the fire with two provincial policemen aboard. When it returned I also knew that the third figure was poor, old Mr. Yeates, an innocent breaker of the law against lighting fires after May 1st. Later that year I got the whole story from his own lips.
The saw-mill on the Nechaco where Mac had been employed, had been sold, taken apart and moved away, leaving a lot of timber so filled with bolts and spikes, that the heavy beams were left behind. Mac was told to take them away if he could make use of them for wood, and he had the timbers moved home. He hired Mr. Yeats to reduce the problem to stove-size, and the old man had the sort of job he liked, to overcome obstacles by patients, and confidence in his own judgment.
Mac told me that he knew the old man lived very simply, and he asked if I would mind giving Mr. Yeats his dinner at noon with us, it would be a change for him. "That is a good thought Mac," I agreed, "and I am glad you mentioned it" but we both warned the boys against staring at the stranger. Hand-splitting those big, square logs was hard work, and he could not use a saw while there were any spikes or bolts in the way of the teeth. There was no hurry, and we knew that he would not overcharge, he was too much the other way. After Mac and the boys had gone their ways at noon, I led Mr. Yeats to talk to me and I got the story of the fire.
At that time, Mr. Yeats was sixty four years old. When the First Great War had alerted the "Georges" for recruits, he had gone to Prince George, where a recruiting office had been opened, to offer his services. He was in perfect health, equal to any healthy man of forty five years, and he was most anxious to enlist, knowing his own strength and capacity for endurance. After leaving Grammar School, he had studied by himself to the point, where he was ready to take his examinations to enter the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, He felt the he could fill a place where his abilities and education could be used.
This was the second time he had tackled a recruiting officer; the first one just looked at him and waved him away, The new man, a doctor, was kinder, more sympathetic. After asking Mr. Yeats what he was doing for a living, the officer advised him to clear more land and raise more food, as it was going to be needed badly. Of course the old man was disappointed, but he appreciated the softened rejection.
On the way home he found at the post office, a letter from his sister in Scotland. In it she told him that his younger brother, Jimmy had not enlisted and had no intention of doing so. Said Mr. Yeats to me, "Think if it, that scut of a young brother of mine, Jimmy, only fifty five, and won't join up to serve his country! I was so ashamed that I wrote right back and told him what I thought of him."Then the old man had gone home and, next morning started to clear another piece of ground, which was cluttered with alder and other hard-to-get out roots, burning them as fast as he could. At near noon the wind was blowing east, away from the Hills, so he went into the house, to boil water for tea and to toast come bannock. In a few minutes he heard the high roar of the fire, the wind had changed that quickly.
"I had been up since daylight," he reminisced, sighing, "but I should not have left the fire while if was burning. It was my own fault for trying to get something to eat." "And what did they do to you over at the Government House?" I asked. "They fined me fifty dollars," he said flatly, "or two weeks in jail. I could have paid the fine, all right, but I felt that I deserved the punishment for putting my appetite before that beautiful, green timber. It will still be burning when the snow comes again, and that is all my fault. But" he brightened, "the Governor's Lady let me work in her garden, and that was a pleasure for me." Such an old-fashioned Christian!
On the second noon of the timber job, I reminded Alan to come home early from school to practice his music lesson. Mr. Yeats learned that we had a piano, and I saw his kind gray eyes glisten. "I used to play a little," he said modestly, "but I liked the organ better and the flute best, of all, since I could take it with me anywhere, to the hills on a holiday and play for hours. I have my flute still at my home but can't play since I lost front teeth." I had an inspiration. "Go into the living-room, Mr. Yeats, and try our piano," I said, "We want Alan to learn, if he will, but Murray will have none of it." Then I went on with my work.
After a little fumbling among the keys with his work-stiffened fingers, I heard the triumphant notes of the sixth Doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," and his really fine baritone voice soaring along in it. He played and sang for ten minutes or more, and when he came out he was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "Mistress Mackenzie," said he, feelingly, "you couldn't understand what this kindness has done for me this day. I thank you." "Yes, Mr. Yeats, I do understand," I differed, "it is the way I felt when I danced for the first time after many years. I used to have the same uplift as a child, too, when I went with my Father to the woods in the Spring, to find all the wild flowers that I loved, blooming in the same places."
Mr. Yeats washed and wore his clothes to get all the good that was in them. He mended and patched and did the same with his shoes. He had neither clock nor watch in repair, but he could tell time close enough by the sun. He had a pair of scissors and kept his whiskers close-hauled, but he had to visit his neighbour near Paden's mill, to cut his hair at the back. Reportedly, he had plenty of money, but he confided in no one, as to finances. He told me that like many other Scots, oatmeal and vegetables had a large place in his diet. One day he mentioned that he preferred to ask less for his work, wood and garden stuff rather than accept his due, for fear he be thought greedy. His self-denial hurt no one else as there was no competition.
My husband had known Mr. Yeats from the time he, Mac, came to Fort George. He told me that the old man was a fine person, and that had spent pleasant hours with him on Sunday afternoons during the summer before I arrived. It was then that Mac learned that after having lived in Canada for a number of years, Mr. Yeats and his son, eight, who was born in Canada, returned to Scotland expecting to spend the rest of their days there. The boy, however, did not have the same feeling for the Old Country, his memory of Canada was more attractive to him and when he was sixteen, he persuaded his father to return. Their tickets were bought, their plans completed, and on the Saturday before they were to sail from Glasgow, the boy and two school-mates, went sailing on the River Don above a dam. A sudden squall blew the boat over, tossing the three boys over the dam and all were drowned, It was six weeks before the body of young Harold Yeats was found, and after the funeral, his father returned to Canada in accordance with the boy's original wish.
Mr. Yeats still held a piece of land near Edmonton, Alberta, and at that city he joined in the work of the new railway leading to Fort George, B.C., where he later took possession of the land he had bought near the Foothills When working for us Mr.Yeats always stopped at four o'clock, to allow him time to get home well before dusk. I would make a pot of tea and give him a snack, as he had a long walk, up hill all the way. He told me one day, that his twelfth birthday was the happiest day of his life, as on that day he carried his father's tool-box to begin his trade as apprentice to his Father, a slate-roofer. He had finished Grammar School, where he had also been a pupil-teacher, The school master had encouraged him to continue his studies, and he said that he filched many a candle-end from his Mother, to light up in his attic when the younger brothers were asleep. That is when and where the most of his studying was done, but there was no point in paying the fee to try the examination since he could not afford to attend the University afterwards.
After completing the apprenticeship with his father, young George Yeats added plastering and bricklaying to his trade. Some time later he found himself in Spain and Portugal, where there was plenty of work, and he learned to drink the mild wine of the Country, instead of the water which was condemned. He also became acquainted with Cervantes' "Don Quixote" and George Borrow's "Bible of Spain", both of which he had enjoyed and recommended to me. At the time, I had not read either.
Somewhere along the way, I felt that this old man had a story, which it might ease to tell. I did know that he had a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of Life and people, and better manners than some folks who looked down their noses at him, as an old tramp. One day he paid me the honour of asking if he might tell me the hard part of his life story. I agreed to listen, and promised, without his asking, to hold it sacred. It is still his story! He said that he felt he owed it to me and my family, because we had received him as a friend. I marvelled at his faith in God and people, in spite of the blows that fate had heaped on him, and told him so. He was surprised. Said he, "But I can do no less. I must live my faith, else it is like an empty sack. The Golden Rule is simple to follow, and so are the Ten Commandments.