The Pith of Sense
Anna Cleary snuggled deeper under her blankets. She hated rising on damp spring mornings. Such feelings were slothful she knew, wastingGod’s good light. Still she could not believe that theall–powerful, divine deity would begrudge her a few more minutes of warmth under her covers.Closing her eyes, she slipped back into her dreamimagining Ian Campbell’s body next to her, warming her in the morning cold. Every Saturday she would carry that dream into the confessional. Father Byrne would warn her against the perils of the fleshand give her ten Hail Marys or Five Acts of Contrition to recite. He would also point out that Ian Campbell, Protestant that he was, could not be considered a proper match for a decent Catholic woman.
For reasons as unknown to her as they were to the priest it was Ian Campbell who had taken her fancy. Foolishness she told herself. Ian was not the brightest man she had ever met. He was honest enough but so were most men. She did take a secret pleasure in admiring his strong arms and shoulders. From the way he looked at her and from the few awkward words he stammered out to her, she knew he was interested in her. She also knew that her mother and brothers would never permit her to marry a Protestant. At twenty-seven Anna was an aged spinster. Her future would be that of a loving aunt to her nephews and nieces and a dutiful daughter to her mother. They, her shop and the church would become her life.
Footsteps on the stairs outside her room broke her thoughts, Alex coming down to fetch water from the pump. Anna turned over burrowing deeper underneath her blankets. Then something heavy thumped against the stairs causing her to sit up. As she touched the small silver crucifix she wore around her neck, Anna breathed a quick Hail Mary. She rose, donned her dressing gown and slipped her feet into a pair of red leather slippers. She passed through the tiny kitchen sitting room into her shop. At the far side of the shop was the door that led to the alleyway. She unbolted the door and opened it. Her eyes watering from the weak morning light she peered out. On the landing in front of the door lay a wooden pail. Muffled groans pulled her eyes up the stairs.
Halfway up the stairs his back resting against the railing sat Alex. Curled over he was pressing a hand against his abdomen.
“Are you all right, Alex?”
He gave a slight gasp. Then pulling himself up, he croaked, “Slipped on the damn stairs. I’m fine. Get back inside before you get your death of cold.”
Anna picked up the pail. She sloshed towards the pump that stood at the back of the yard. With each squelching step she cursed the man’s foolishness.
“I can get my own damn water,” Alex grumbled stepping down to the ground.
Anna replied with a vigorous jerking up and down of the pump handle. If the man had any sense at all, which she doubted, he would make up his differences with Maureen and go home.
Alex waited for Anna to finish working the handle. He picked up the pail and lugged it back towards the stairs. Water sloshed over the brim spilling against his trouser legs. With a tired wave of his left arm he brushed away Anna’s offer to help. A good two inches taller then Alex, Anna looked down into his sunken eyes. She realised that she was not looking at the healthy tiredness that followed a day’s work. Alex’s exhaustion showed the complete draining of strength from every pore in his body.
She watched the old man hauling the water back up the stairs. Father Byrne had often told his flock that they were all spirit trapped within the weaknesses of the flesh. Alex, she surmised, was no different from anyone else.
Maureen should help. Even if Alex had lost James’s estate, he was still her family. After breakfast Anna would walk over to Kilmarnock Hill and tell Maureen the truth about Alex’s condition. Anna could tell McKay but the doctor was not one to defy his wife. It would have to be Maureen. She was about to tell Alex when he disappeared into his room.
Kilmarnock sat upon a rocky shelf of land that rose at a gentle slope from out of the waters of Lake Lomond. Finding one’s way in the village was never very difficult. One either lived away from or towards the lake. Bordering Queen Street, a sixty-foot swathe of mud were one and two-storied buildings, most wooden, the oldest squared timbered, the newer of clapboard sides. The village boasted two stone churches, Saint Andrews Presbyterian built of brown sandstone, and across the street from it, two years old, made from white granite, the Church of the Sacred Heart. The two buildings faced each other, two wary wrestlers respectful of each other’s strength. Kilmarnock’s two lesser sects, the Methodists and Free Presbyterian proclaimed their lack of worldly vanity with two small white clapboard buildings. Brick still remained confined to three buildings, the McLoughlin Building, Ferguson’s Dry Goods, and the largest building in Kilmarnock, the Royal Arms.
Anna’s route took her past Campbell’s Forge and Livery Stable. She never passed by the smithy without the fear that Ian would be there. He would bid her a good day. She would respond. Anna could imagine all six hundred people in Kilmarnock having nothing else to do than to listen to every word they had to say. She considered steering around the building but rejected the thought. People might think it strange. Besides she had as much right as anyone to use the road. Keeping her eyes on the road she strode past the forge.
As he tied the strings of his leather apron, Tom Campbell eyed spinster Cleary hurrying past. Odd. Anna should be opening up her shop. Tom had to admit that he had never had much time for the woman. She was a bogtrotter, a snooty one at that. She had a good figure but she was a red head, a sign of a woman with a bad temper. Besides, she was too tall for his taste, a good five and a half feet. Unnatural it was for a woman to be looking down on a man. A mare was always smaller than a stallion, a cow smaller than a bull.
“You should be watering the horses,” Ian said. He had come through the back door of the forge to find his brother staring out at the street. Tom was a good worker but at times Ian felt it necessary to remind him who was in command. “Gawking don’t fill the stomach.”
“Looks like spinster Cleary’s not going to work today,” said Tom.
Ian followed his brother’s gaze to find Anna walking towards the covered bridge.
“Must be off to see her mother,” he said.
As she passed the Royal Arms Anna could not keep her eyes from tilting towards the small cardboard sign placed in the great front window. In large black letters two words stared at her. NO IRISH. When the innkeeper, Joe Morris, had placed it in the window two years before, he had told her that the sign was not meant for the Clearys or other respectable families. He only wanted to discourage penniless trash. He intended no personal offence. She took none, Anna had told him with the tightest of smiles. She had not stepped inside the Royal Arms since, content to have what little mail she received to be collected by either Doctor McKay or Alex. She regretted that she had not been born a male free to move away as her brothers had done.
Anna thought of her childhood, of running home crying because the other little girls had laughed at her. She had promised herself two things. No one would ever laugh at her again. The other was that she would never forgive Doctor MacTavish for what he had done to her mother and to herself. She had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to keep her from those men who would lead her into sin as Alex MacTavish had led her mother.
After James and Jean MacTavish and her own sainted father, Padraic, had died of the cholera, Rebecca had stayed on to keep house for Doctor MacTavish. That was the polite thing to say. The truth was that the doctor had seduced her, degrading her to the position of a mistress. It had been a scandal throughout Kilmarnock eighteen years before. Most people had now forgotten it except Rebecca’s children and Maureen McKay, Alex’s niece. One thing Maureen and Anna agreed upon. Alex had betrayed them both.
that the betrayal had not extended to his treatment of herself or of her two
brothers. Alex had never raised a hand against any of them. He paid for their
schooling, clothed and fed them. He had brought them out of the small,
overcrowded cabin that had once served as the first MacTavish home into
Kilmarnock Hill. When they attained their majority he offered his brothers and
her land within the township. Her brothers had refused, first Patrick and then Tim.
The MacTavishes, Patrick told Alex, had already done enough for the Clearys.
Anna, being a woman, had lacked the choice her brothers had. She could have married, gone into a convent, become a servant or opened a shop. She did not feel called to the cloister. No Cleary, she had promised herself, would ever be a servant again. Instead she chose to open a small dressmaking shop in Kilmarnock to remain close to her mother. Rebecca gave her the money for the shop but Anna knew that the money had come from Alex. If it had been from anyone else she would have felt gratitude but not from Alex. For years she had watched Alex try to replace Padraic as their father, taking his place at the head of the table and in their mother’s bed. Patrick had known that every gesture on Alex’s part, every gift had all been based upon that pretence. A sham, he had called Alex. After all, Alex had never married their mother. Why would he? The Clearys were only Irish.
If Doctor MacTavish had done the honourable thing and married their mother, Kilmarnock Hill would have become the Cleary home. As it was, they had no claim to the beds they slept in, the chairs in which they sat and the floors they walked on. Father O’Farrel, Patrick would point out, had called the doctor a pharisee. Denied their rightful place, buffeted by taunts from children every time they passed through Kilmarnock, the Cleary boys saw the source of their shame in the quiet little man who shared their table. What kind of a man was he anyway? The sham was not even a competent physician, said Patrick. If he had been their father, their sister, Mary Francis, and their brother, Sean, would have lived.
Anna had learned the truth on the day that Morris put up his sign. Anna climbed the stair to Alex’s office. In angry words she told him about the sign. He nodded and said that it was a shameful thing. She had then asked him what he would do about it. Alex shrugged. He could do nothing.
“It’s wrong,” she said.
“It’s not against the law to be wrong.”
“Morris is a friend of yours. Say something.”
“There’s nothing I can say. The man is within his rights.”
Anna knew then that what Patrick had been saying for years was true. “It’s not against the law to be a coward either, is it Alex?”
Alex of course did nothing. The sign remained. As she remembered Alex of the past she thought of the old man lugging water up the stairs. Alex was not a bad man, she conceded. He was just not a man. She would tell Maureen that Alex was ill. Maureen would persuade her uncle to come home. Anna would at last be left in peace.
At breakfast Maureen announced to George that she would begin work on her vegetable garden. The late arrival of warm weather and the heavy rains had kept her from beginning in April. Now, with the clearing of the skies, she decided not to lose any more time. George, his thoughts elsewhere, half-listened to her plans for the garden. Pecking her right cheek, he mumbled his assent. Miffed, Maureen left the breakfast to be cleared by Rebecca and went upstairs. There she changed into a grey gardening frock. Going out the back door she went to the tool shed, collected hoe and trowel and marched out to the garden bed.
As she broke up the thick black clots of soil and tossed aside the stones Maureen considered George’s distracted manner. Something was troubling him. She suspected that something was Uncle Alex. It seemed a reasonable deduction. He was the source of everything else that had gone wrong in her life. Every thrust of the trowel reminded her of how her uncle had ruined her.
Maureen tossed aside another pebble. The world could have been hers. What had she received? This dirty little collection of huts would be all that she would ever know that and the dark green of the endless forest. Maureen brushed back a strand of yellow hair that had fallen across her left eye. Pulling off her leather work gloves, she tucked the errant strand back under her straw hat. Before she put her gloves back on, she studied her hands. Roughened by work and darkened by the sun they had become so ugly. Every night she would soak them in a poultice of warm oatmeal paste. It would have all been unnecessary if her life had been what it should have been.
Maureen loved her uncle. She wished that she could like him. If he had been a Ralph Nickleby, tight-fisted and vicious, she could have hated him in good conscience. Uncle Alex was not a bad man she admitted tossing away a pebble her trowel had unearthed. He was just a bad uncle.
Once, when she had been very small, she had adored him. He was at his best with small children, always seeming to find the time to play with her, make her simple gifts, tell her stories or sing her songs. She remembered asking over and over for her favourites, Annie Laurie and the Minstrel Boy. Then the cholera had come in 1834. It had taken away her father and mother and part of Uncle Alex.
She had been six, too young to understand anything of what was happening, just that she was alone and needing her mother. At night it had been the feel of her uncle’s arms around her, of the rough stubble of his cheek against her face that had allowed her to forget her fear and grief, to feel safe in a world grown too large. During the two years that had followed he became the centre of her life. Rebecca had become a second mother, the Cleary children her brothers and sister. Then when she was eight Uncle Alex had sent her away.
As the winter had stretched into spring, Uncle Alex had grown silent, almost morose. Even today she wondered if she had done anything to offend him. One day he told her she was going to Kingston, a large city, a full day’s journey by steamer. She would go to school there. She would learn how to be a fine lady, to wear pretty dresses, how to speak French and how to play the piano.
When told his decision she had screamed and struck him telling him that she would not go. For the first time this failed to shake him. She then told him that she would go only if he would take her. He agreed. Three weeks later a Miss Dodd arrived by steamboat. She had come to take Maureen to the school. Maureen had run to her uncle and started hitting him, screaming that he had promised. Alex had told her that he was too busy. He would visit her in a few days to see that she had settled in properly. He had then shown her the new dress that Miss Dodd had brought her. With the greatest of reluctance, she had agreed to go. On that warm August day, hand in hand with her uncle, she had walked down to the dock at the bottom of Kilmarnock Hill where the steamer waited. Despite the years that had passed, she still remembered Uncle Alex standing on the dock, waving goodbye. Her left hand holding on to Miss Dodd’s hand, she had kept waving until Uncle Alex had dwindled to a black dot. The only thought that had comforted her was his promise that he would come and visit her soon.
The school had not been a happy place for Maureen during her first months there. Kingston, with more than ten thousand people she found large and noisy, very different from the green quiet of Kilmarnock. Above all she had missed her uncle. Every week she had written begging him to come and visit her. All the other little girls received visitors. Why could he not come? It was only fifty miles. Again and again he would write back pleading the excuse of too much to do, but soon he would be free. The soon never came. She would not see him again until December when she returned home for the Christmas holiday. She had been brought by Angus Campbell who had told her that Uncle Alex had been too busy to come.
Maureen conceded that Alex had been right to send her to Kingston. She had received a sound education. For fourty pounds per annum she had been drilled in Writing, Reading, Arithmetic, Music, Needlework, Watercolouring, Homemaking, French, Religious Studies and Floral Arrangement. The widow of a Church of Scotland minister, Mrs. McClelland had taught her pupils the Christian virtues of Faith, Humility, Charity and, and above all else, Truthfulness. With lies and deceit Satan worked his will.
A quick student, Maureen had tried hard to follow Mrs. McClelland’s teachings. At sixteen, Mrs. McClelland appointed her as assistant tutor of Needlework and Music. To the girls under her, Maureen made clear that deceit was not to be tolerated.
During the twelve years she attended Mrs. McClelland’s Maureen would see her uncle only during holidays. Even then he would often be away from Kilmarnock Hill riding the back roads for days, visiting farms and hamlets. When he was with her he seemed awkward and defensive. At times he seemed to look froward to her returning to Kingston. Yet this same man would write long letters to her every week. She seemed to read the words of one man, and hear the words of another.
Maureen had tried to understand him. She conceded that a physician could fail to keep an occasional promise due to professional demands. She was after all married to a physician. But George always seemed to find the time every other week to take her to Brockville or to Kingston. Not once had Uncle Alex found the time to see her in Kingston. Years of neglect had been followed with an act she could not forgive, his refusal to come to her wedding.
Maureen could have understood if he had opposed the marriage. Instead he had requested that it be held at Kilmarnock Hill, not in Brockville. In her return letter Maureen, tactfully as possible, had pointed out why such a notion could not be considered. George’s family would have to tramp by horse and coach over terrible roads or be crowded onto a steamboat. All that discomfort would have to be endured for the sake of one old man. Even Rebecca and Anna when they had arrived for the wedding had agreed with her. Out of spite or indifference Uncle Alex had refused to come.
“When I was a child I spake as a child.” Maureen’s view of her uncle had been one of those childish things she had put away. As she had matured Maureen saw him for what he was, a weak, little man who had drifted through life in the wake of a stronger, abler brother, her father, James.
Maureen had once looked upon her uncle as a wise man possessing great and mysterious powers, regarded with awe by his ignorant neighbours. In Kingston and in Brockville she had gained a clearer perception of what medical men were. Tall, plump, well dressed, they owned their own carriages and had servants to tend to their needs. They were leaders of their communities. Doctor James Sampson, a close friend of the McKays had twice been mayor of Kingston, had received the governor-general of the Canadas and had been one of the founders of the Presbyterian Theological College in Kingston. What was Uncle Alex?
He had never served in any public capacity. He never went to any social functions. Every June 18 Judge Strachan, at his estate on the Tay River would hold a ball and dinner to celebrate Waterloo Day. Every year Uncle Alex would be invited. Every year he would decline. When she asked him why, he had told her that he had seen nothing in the day to celebrate.
Every night Maureen would say two prayers. The first was to have a child. The second was that her uncle’s soul might be saved. Neither prayer had been answered. Her uncle’s behaviour had only grown worse. His table manners were atrocious. He would often eat with his mouth open, too buried in thought to take notice of his company. Sometimes Maureen would catch herself staring at how he would sop up gravy with his bread, as if every drop were precious to him. What offended her most was Alex’s indifference to his own soul’s salvation. Not once had he been known to step inside a church. This, Maureen knew, had a disastrous effect upon his reputation as a physician. Sensible people would not place themselves in the hands of a damned soul.
Her father, James, a successful woollen merchant from Glasgow, had invested his savings in land in Upper Canada. When he died he had left behind an estate of 18,000 acres. Included with the estate had been a lumber mill, a gristmill and a foundry. All Uncle Alex had to do was to hold it together until she came of age. He could not even do that. How could a man who defied the commandments of both God and man hope to prosper?
Since the time of Knox the MacTavishes had been devout followers of the Church of Scotland. The land upon which Saint Andrews stood had been land donated by her father. As far back as she could remember Maureen had always pleaded with her uncle to make his peace with God. He had always replied that he would. He never did. More lies. Once he had told her that he had never felt comfortable at worship, as if feeling comfortable had anything to do with it. Of the four churches in Kilmarnock only one was the true faith. The others were distortions. Even so at least they acknowledged a belief in God. Alex held no belief at all. To hold a false belief was wrong but understandable, but to believe in nothing?
She had heard of Atheists. Shallow soil upon which the good seed had withered and died. That explained why Uncle Alex had failed. He could not believe in anything or in anyone. He could therefore take nothing seriously, least of all the truth. He could see no difference between lies and truth swinging back and forth between both without a thought for the consequences and without any apparent sense of shame or guilt. Alex the liar. Alex the failure. She had to live with the shame of that.
Maureen also had to live with the poverty he had condemned her to. When she had returned for a visit to Kilmarnock Hill with her new husband Alex had turned over to her eighteen hundred acres, the house on Kilmarnock Hill and nothing else. She had asked him what had happened to her father’s land. He had muttered something about bad investments. Advised by George not to press the matter she had let it drop. During the past year however she had pieced together what had happened to her inheritance.
Land worth at least eight shillings an acre Alex had sold at six pence. During the two years before her return to Kilmarnock her uncle seemed to have been almost frantic in his haste to strip her of her land. As late as 1846 her holdings had still been more than ten thousand acres. Then the Irish had come, drunkards, Papists, filthy, typhus-ridden, spreading disease and immorality wherever they went. What had her uncle done? He had brought them to Kilmarnock and given them her land.
Maureen could understand how it happened. Rebecca had worked her way into Alex’s bed, taking advantage of his kindliness and weakness of character to strengthen the Irish. Rebecca had served as a tool of the priests. Father Byrne and Father O’Farrel before him had worked on her telling her that her soul would be in peril if she did not help her fellow Catholics. The bishops in Kingston and Montreal had seen a rich prize in the MacTavish lands. Through their servant Rebecca Cleary they could overthrow Protestant power in Kilmarnock Township. Maureen had told George to let the woman go. Rebecca could stay with her daughter or one of her sons. George had looked at her as if she had said something disagreeable. Maureen had allowed the matter to drop resolving that once Rebecca became too old to work she would be replaced by a good, Protestant girl.
In Kingston Maureen had often dreamt of what she would do once she came into her inheritance. She would travel, to New York City, London, Paris. She would keep a fine house along King Street in Kingston, or perhaps even in Montreal. A home filled with flowers and music, she would entertain the finest families. She would not be blind to those less fortunate. “The poor we shall always have with us.” They had their place as she had hers. Their place was to serve. Her place was to protect and guide. She would live the life decreed by her father and by God. That dream had been shattered by the loss of her father’s land. Uncle Alex had betrayed his brother’s trust, Kilmarnock and her.
If she had been a man Maureen could have done something. As a woman all she could do was show Christian forbearance and forgiveness. Her uncle’s indifference and sloth had cost her a fortune. Yet she had not been angry. She had accepted it without a murmur. Her duty had demanded it
Since Uncle Alex failed to show any sense of family responsibility it fell upon her to protect the MacTavish name. In doing so she might shame her uncle into an awareness of his errors. This, Mrs. McClelland had told her was the duty of womankind, to bear in silence the weakness of the male and in doing so, civilise him. Seek reform through setting an example, making up in moral strength what she may lack in physical strength. So Maureen had borne without complaint her uncle’s boorishness, his atheism, the foul odour of whiskey clinging to him, and his lies.
Uncle Alex’s inability to concede even the smallest point had driven him away from Kilmarnock Hill. It had all been so silly when one thought about it, the argument that had precipitated his leaving. She had invited the Reverend Douglas Mackenzie and his wife Ellen over for tea. She had begged her uncle to behave himself. So he had, refraining from using bad language and watching his manners during the meal. Ellen and she had such a gay chat about the ladies of the town. George and Reverend Mackenzie had discussed the possibility of a new bell for the church. After dinner they had retired to the drawing room for tea.
Maureen’s mother had always been fond of that room. After her parents had died, Uncle Alex had locked it. When the house passed into her hands Maureen had reopened it. She had insisted on cleaning it herself. This would be her room as it had been her mother’s before her.
The McKays had settled on the Ottoman, the Mackenzies on the old but comfortable horsehair chairs. Alex had trailed behind, finding a chair towards the back of the room. Maureen had not objected. As long as he kept quiet she would be content. Alex had been so quiet she had not noticed his leaving. The McKays and the Mackenzies were too involved in agreeing about the character of the recent Irish immigrants infesting the colony.
When she did notice that Alex was missing Maureen assumed that he had gone to bed. Only after the Mackenzies had left did Maureen find him in the kitchen. Coat draped over the back of his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, Alex was sharing a pot of tea with Rebecca. The fact that he had insulted her guest, a man of the cloth by not bidding him goodnight had not occurred to him. An overgrown child Alex had been interested only in what had pleased him. She had told him that his actions were inconsiderate and that she felt ashamed of him. He seemed to take it to heart. Then he said the unforgivable.
“It’s not Mackenzie’s fault he was born a fool.”
Alex had insulted a man of God. She demanded that he go to the minister and apologise for his behaviour. He agreed. Furthermore, she added, Alex’s practice of inviting Father Byrne for a weekly game of chess would have to end. This, she had told her uncle, was a Protestant house. He would have to accept that if he wished to remain in it. Her father had never allowed a priest in the house. Maureen saw no reason why she should.
Alex had replied by packing his grip and moving into his office in the village. For the past ten months he had remained there returning every so often for a visit and a meal. Sheer stubborn, wilfulness. Uncle Alex had never liked her and never would. She did not know why but Maureen did know Uncle Alex would have to pay the price for false pride.
What hurt her most was that his stubbornness was beginning to infect her marriage. She had expected George to support her in her dispute with her uncle. Yet ever since coming to Kilmarnock she had detected worrying changes taking place within George, changes that were beginning to push them apart. The first had been the decision to settle in Kilmarnock. That had been George’s decision, not hers and it had been prompted by Uncle Alex.
Before they had married George had planned to take up a practice in Brockville. Within a few years he might buy a wealthier practice in a larger town, perhaps in Montreal. All that had changed after Alex’s invitation had come. Maureen had hoped that such a visit could be avoided. After Alex’s failure to appear at her wedding she had no further wish to see him. Yet the need to settle her affairs in Kilmarnock could not be denied. Neither could she decline her uncle’s invitation without declaring an open breach with him. To preserve the facade of family unity she had agreed to go.
As she had listened to Rebecca prattle on about the villagers George and Alex had retired to Alex’s bedroom. What they had discussed George never mentioned but that night when they were in bed George declared that he would be taking over Alex’s practice. Maureen had not liked the decision but she had accepted it. The choice of where he wished to work was the husband’s prerogative. Maureen knew her place.
When she had been twelve Maureen had been fascinated by Mathematics. The logic of numbers had intrigued her. Mrs. McClelland had found her reading Pythagoras when she should have working on a sampler for her uncle. The woman had told Maureen to turn her mind to feminine matters. Dutiful student that she was Maureen returned to her needlework.
What she could never admit to George or to her uncle or to anyone else was that she hated Kilmarnock. Although proud of the fact that her father had created the village, she had no wish to live there. The year before her wedding she had avoided returning during vacation pleading, with some justice, the demands imposed by her work at the school. The courtship between herself and George was also making great inroads on her time. Besides Uncle Alex had never shown any interest in seeing her before. Why should he start now? If she had gone up to Kilmarnock George would have wanted to see her family. What would he have thought of her uncle, of Rebecca and of Kilmarnock? It would be so much nicer to go to Brockville.
To make her lot even more difficult George would often be away for two or three days at a time visiting remote districts of the township. Two things kept her sane when George was away. The house always demanded work, the one benefit of not having many servants. The other factor was the elevated company offered by the Mackenzies and a few others, the Harrisons and Fergusons and Mister Burke the schoolteacher. In such company provincial though it was, she could play whist and chat about the news from Kingston. Forgotten would be the summer dust and the air poisoned by the stench of privies and swamps.
Maureen stabbed the ground with the trowel. Then she sensed someone watching her. She looked up to see Anna Cleary peering down at her from the back porch. Maureen surmised that Anna had come to see her mother. Disliking the thought of anyone, least of all a Cleary, towering above her, she rose to her full height of sixty inches. She brushed the dirt off her smock. As she did so Maureen told herself that this person had encouraged Uncle Alex to stay away from his home. Even so she was still a guest. Courtesy was demanded. Maureen remembered to smile. “Miss Cleary. I trust you find your mother well?”
“Yes, thank you.” Aware of how Maureen disliked being reminded of her short stature, Anna remained where she was. If Maureen did not like it, Maureen would have to be the one to move. “Actually it’s not about her that I wish to speak.”
“I see.” Maureen waited for Anna to descend. When she did not Maureen gathered up her tools and walked towards the shed.
. Anna, resisting the impulse to shove Maureen down into the mud, concentrated upon the purpose of her trip. “It’s about your uncle.”
Maureen lifted up the wooden latch of the shed and returned the tools to their appropriate pegs. A proper place for everything and everyone. Once this shed had been the proper place for the Clearys. “Well?”
“I saw him this morning. He had an accident.”
A pang of concern cut into Maureen but she mastered it. She concentrated upon closing and relatching the door. The mind, she reminded herself, must always rule the heart. “I see. Was it bad?”
“Not really. He slipped on the stairs.”
“You came all this way to tell me that he slipped? Most considerate of you. Would you like some tea?”
Maureen could sense Anna’s agitation. By remaining calm Maureen would remain mistress of the situation. She walked back towards the kitchen knowing that Anna would have no other choice but to follow. As for Uncle Alex, the man had taken a slight slip, nothing more.
“It’s about why he slipped,” said Anna, trotting behind.
“Why was that?”
“He’s ill. I don’t know from what but he’s barely more than skin and bone. He might be having a fever.”
“I didn’t know that you were a physician, Miss Cleary.”
“I have eyes.”
Maureen stopped and looked back at her. “So does my husband. He examines Doctor MacTavish every week. He told me my uncle is fine. So who am I supposed to believe, you or him?”
“I know what I saw.”
“Are you saying that my husband is lying to me?”
“Maybe you should go and see Alex for yourself?”
Humiliate herself in front of the entire village? Did the woman hate her that much? Still there might be something in what she was saying. Uncle Alex had been losing weight all through the winter. “My husband is in his office. You should have gone to see him.”
“It’s not him that Alex needs. It’s you.”
“Does he? He’s shown precious little sign of it before. If he does, all he has to do is ask.”
“He won’t do that. You know what he’s like.”
“Then he had better change, hadn’t he?” Maureen flounced up the back porch steps leaving Anna below on the ground.
“Don’t you even care?” Anna asked.
Maureen, who was opening the screen door, paused. One of the things she looked forward to after Rebecca’s retirement would be denying Anna the right to step upon MacTavish land. “Of course I care,” she snapped. “Alex is a grown man. He is responsible for his own decisions. It was his choice to leave; his choice to remain away. I cannot force him to change his mind.”
“You can ask.”
“I have asked.” What more could she do, beg? How ill could Alex be? He was a physician. He was well enough to take care of that thief that Mister McDermott had found in his barn.
“Go to him,” Anna pleaded. “See him, just for a few minutes.”
Maureen shook her head. She knew how Alex felt about her. Besides, if she were going to take advice from anyone it would not be a Cleary. “He doesn’t want me there.”
“I will thank you, Miss Cleary “not to intrude in my family’s matters.”
Anna turned. In a half-whisper, just loud enough to catch Maureen’s ears she uttered one word. “Bitch.”