May 4, 1956
“I am going to explore,” the old woman said. The friend with whom Mina Hubbard was visiting cautioned her not to stay out too long, their midmorning tea would be ready soon. The friend would have preferred that Mina not go out at all, for at eighty-six years old Mina had become a bit forgetful of late. More than once she had “gone to explore” the town of Coulsdon, a suburb of London, England, only to lose her bearings and be brought back to Fairdene Road by strangers.
But Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis was not the kind of woman who could be persuaded to pass the day in a rocking chair, especially not a fine spring day like this one, a day that smelled of balsam and spruce and of rivers swift with melted snow. A Canadian who had trained as a nurse in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mina still possessed the same headlong spirit that had defined her as a young woman, the same iron will that, in 1905, had made her one of the most celebrated women of her time.
Even now that spirit was evident in the quickness of her gait and in the angle, not quite imperious, at which she held her chin. She came away from her friend’s house, paused for a moment to enjoy the scent of the bright May morning, then strode in the direction of the Coulsdon South railway station. She crossed the busy street with barely a glance at the traffic, extending her arms in both directions like a traffic cop, enforcing a path for herself, as was her habit.
Few people if any in Coulsdon were aware of Mina’s fame and accomplishments. Few knew of her lecture tours across America and England. Few knew that during the Second World War, while bombs dropped all around her lovely home in London’s Hampstead neighbourhood, Mina, as described by biographer Anne Hart in the CBC radio program Through Unknown Labrador
, was “serving up left-wing causes with the tea, and retiring each night, oblivious to bombs, to a bed whose silk coverlet was always spread with the grey blanket she had slept under on the long-ago Labrador trail.” Few knew that at thirty years of age Mina had been timid and indecisive, that she had considered herself unattractive and of small value except as a companion to the man she all but worshipped, the hapless Leonidas Hubbard Jr., whose ignominious fate would soon determine her own.
If the citizens of Coulsdon knew Mina at all, it was as a small, eccentric old woman — a woman who now, on this sparkling spring day, climbed a grassy bank near the railroad tracks and strolled along like an explorer on a high ridge, eyes searching for something or somebody.
According to the Purley and Coulsdon Advertiser
of May 11, 1956, Jill Foster, a fourteen-year-old girl, was standing on the platform of the Coulsdon South station when Mina came down the grassy bank and walked toward the tracks. Jill wondered where the old woman thought she was going; she had already passed the pedestrian walkway that would have brought her safely across the tracks to the station. Then Mina opened a gate intended to keep pedestrians away from the tracks, and Jill nudged her companion, fifteen-year-old Roger Aslin.
Roger cupped his hands to his mouth. “You’d better watch out there!” he called. “Train’s due any minute now!”
But Mina paid no attention. Perhaps she did not hear well. Perhaps she assumed that an approaching train could be held at bay by her outstretched arms, just as the cars and lorries were.
Or perhaps she knew full well that a train would never yield, that some things in life remain unswervable. A woman’s iron will, for example. A wife’s unflinching devotion.
In any case, Mina paid no heed to the warnings. She paid no heed to the rumble of the train as it approached the station, or to the shrill blast of its whistle. Maybe the rumble reminded her of a waterfall’s roar, a sound that, in an earlier time, had never failed to thrill her. In those days every new waterfall and every new set of rapids had murmured with the promise of discovery, and she had approached each one with a constriction in her throat and the hope that somehow, miraculously, Leonidas, her Laddie, would be waiting there to receive her, to welcome her back into his arms.
Now, she crossed the first set of tracks and stepped into the centre of the second set, and there paused, lifted her chin slightly, and smiled once more.
The children on the platform screamed to her. Mina turned her face to the sun. Did she hear the shouts of warning? Or were her thoughts attuned to another world entirely, to the perfume of pine in the air, the scent of a misty river a world and a lifetime away? Did she again feel that familiar tightening in her chest and hear in the train’s approach the rumble of a waterfall rushing to engulf her on such a fine spring day . . . a perfect day for her journey’s end?Part 1: How It Began
Whatever Mina’s motive for stepping onto the tracks that day, her devotion to Leonidas Hubbard Jr. was surely at the heart of it. He was a man whose infectious enthusiasm for adventure altered not only his own life but hers and many others’ as well.
As a child growing up in rural Michigan, Hubbard developed a passionate interest in history and geography and a love for the natural world. Mina later described him as an imaginative and sensitive boy who had been reared on stories of travel and adventure. “His imagination kindled by what he read,” she wrote, “and the oft-repeated tales of frontier life in which the courage, endurance, and high honour of his own pioneer forefathers stood out strong and clear, it was but natural that the boy under the apple trees should feel romance in every bit of forest, every stream; that his thoughts should be reaching towards the out-of-the-way places of the earth where life was still that of the pioneer with the untamed wilderness lying across his path. . . .”
He brought those same sensibilities to his duties as a reporter for an evening paper in Detroit, where he went to work upon his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1897. A slight man of large ambitions, it wasn’t long before he yearned for more challenge and adventure. In the summer of 1899, with less than five dollars in his pocket, Hubbard left Detroit for New York City. New York was throbbing with growth, the perfect place for him to launch himself into the ranks of his heroes. His most fervent desire was to become as famous as Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Peary and Jack London, all bold and independent souls, men with fire in their blood. He considered himself cut from the same cloth.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Heart So Hungry by Randall Silvis. Copyright © 2004 by Randall Silvis. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.