The July heat had soaked the bedroom. Outside the open window Maureen could hear the soft chirruping of cicadas and the solemn croaking of frogs. She curled beside George, their bodies covered only by one thin sheet. Having made love George had fallen into a deep sleep. On most nights Maureen would have done the same but not this night. Too many thoughts crowded her mind. Unable to sleep she rose, pulled on her robe and lit the bedroom lamp. She went to her uncle’s bedroom. As quietly as she could, she opened the door. Rebecca was asleep in the chair, her right hand resting on Alex’s arm. Peter slept on the folding cot on the other side of Alex’s bed. Maureen, feeling the stranger in this room, stepped back out into the hall and closed the door.
She descended the stairs and entered the drawing room. The clock chimed eleven. Maureen placed the lamp on the small table and looked up at the portraits of her parents. Whenever she had been troubled she had found strength in them. She could not find it this night. As she studied her father she felt herself looking at the face of a stranger. James had been a man who had believed in certainties but what had those certainties been? To understand Alex she would have to understand James. She began with the memories she had of him, her own memories not those planted by someone else. They were so few. Not once could she remember sitting on James’ lap or his giving her a goodnight kiss. All fathers she once believed were stern, remote figures. Yet when she thought of George as a father she knew he would be different from James. There were also the other memories.
On the morning Paisley visited Alex, Maureen had sat with Rebecca on the back porch. Rebecca, busy peeling carrots, still fumed over Alex’s determination to receive Paisley. “Foolishness. He’ll be inviting the entire district next.”
“Yes, ma’am?” Rebecca looked up from the carrots.
“I would appreciate it if you would call me Maureen, please.”
Rebecca came close to slicing a finger. “If you like . . . Maureen.” She smiled.
The smile reminded Maureen of when she had been a little girl. She had gotten so used to thinking of Rebecca as a servant and rival, not as a possible friend. “What do you know of my father, Rebecca?”
“I want to know what he was like as a man, how Alex and he got along together.”
“Oh? Well, he was a fine handsome man. ”
“I know. I have the portrait, but what was he like?”
“He was a hardworking man. No man could work harder than he could in the field, in the office, in the mill. He was a good provider. He paid a fair wage.”
“Did you like him?”
“Like him? Of course I. . .” Rebecca stopped. Questions related to James she had always passed off to Alex. She surmised that Maureen would have asked much sooner if it had not been for all the nonsense Alex had been filling her with over the years. Putting down her knife she folded her arms. “Do you want the truth or what you think the truth should be?”
Puzzled Maureen answered. “The truth, Rebecca.”
Rebecca looked into Maureen’s eyes. “I knew the man for ten years. I never liked him.”
Maureen bridled at the slighting of her father’s memory but checked herself. She had asked for the truth. “Why?”
Rebecca shrugged. “Sometimes people take a like or dislike to others. Almost from the first I had a feeling about him; just something . . . People think Alex is a bit of a fool. Even so, most like him. He makes people feel better about themselves, at least most people.”
“Your children never liked Alex.”
Rebecca nodded. “That was different. They couldn’t separate Alex from James. James could be a charmer when he chose. He had a fine tongue and could be generous with his money, but he always had a reason for it, if you know what I mean.”
“I think so. Go on.”
“What I couldn’t forgive James for was that after Padraic’s accident, if it hadn’t been for Alex he would have let us go starve and not thought twice about it.”
“How did Alex persuade him to keep you on?”
“I don’t know. That was between the two of them. Something else I didn’t like about James was how he spoke to Alex. James was the elder. Alex deferred to him, natural enough being the younger I suppose but still.”
“I don’t think James ever understood Alex. I don’t think he even cared enough to try. To James the land was everything. Alex didn’t own any, or much of anything else, except for his books. Laziness, James called it. It wasn’t that at all. Alex was just different. James always had two favorite sayings he would trot out every so often when he wanted to make a point. Every man has to carry his own burden in life. I always thought eighteen thousand acres would have made Padraic’s burden a bit easier to carry. I wondered how well James would have carried his burden without the land.”
Alex’s land, Maureen wanted to tell her. Instead she allowed Rebecca to ramble undisturbed through her memories.
“He would also say that to rise in the world Alex should be more aggressive and push himself forward more. Alex’s problem was that he was born a runt and would always be a runt.”
“He said . . .?”
“Oh aye, and Alex would sit there as if he were listening to the words of Solomon. I would have punched the man in the nose if I were Alex. You want to know more about James?”
“Ask Anna about the doll.”
“Yes. I wasn’t there at the time. I can’t really say much about it, but Anna knows. Do you remember an old rag doll you used to own? You must have been about five then.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Anna does. Ask her about it.”
“Rebecca, one last question. Why, when you care for Alex so much, do you call him a fool?”
“Because he is,” said Rebecca. “The man honestly believes if he tries hard enough, gives enough, and waits long enough, that people will change for the better. He’s waited forty years. We’re still the same, stiff-necked quarreling bastards we’ve always been. He just won’t admit what everyone else knows, that’s its hopeless.”
Maureen thought for a moment. “If that’s true, Rebecca, what does that make us?”
Rebecca picked up her paring knife and returned to the carrots. “Even bigger fools.”
When Maureen stepped into her shop, a straw basket under her arm, Anna frowned. Something was not right. Maureen seemed almost pleasant. She remembered what her father had once said. A bear does not always smile because it feels friendly. “Good morning, Mrs. McKay. How is Alex?”
“Resting. He seems out of pain for the moment. He’s impatient at having to be in bed.”
“He never was one for taking advice. He has my prayers,” she added knowing Maureen would look upon Papist prayers with some skepticism. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Maureen placed the basket on the counter. “Are you very busy?”
“Not especially. Do you need me at the house again?”
“Not just now . . . thank you. I’ve come about something else.”
Maureen had come to make peace. Her offer reminded Anna of another of her father’s stories. A drill sergeant and his company stood to attention in the pouring rain. The sergeant told them to raise three hearty cheers. Whether the men felt hearty or not, they had to comply. Unlike those men, Anna had a choice. She could keep sniping but she lacked the heart for it. If she could do nothing else she could help make Alex’s last days peaceful. They celebrated their truce over a pot of fresh tea and one of Rebecca’s peach pies. “We shall be sisters again,” Maureen told her.
At what price Anna wondered. What did Maureen want? Over the second cup of tea she found out.
“I was talking to your mother this morning about my father. She mentioned something about a rag doll. I must have been about five. She said it had something to do with James.”
“Why do you want to know about that,” Anna asked her voice becoming guarded. “I was only eight. I hardly remember it myself.”
“But you do remember it?”
“Yes. Why do you want to know?”
“A rag doll? I gave it away years ago to little Bridget Foley. Alex buried it with her.” Anna fell silent. She remembered the day the soldiers came, her mother screaming at Alex, his walking out the door, the little girl in his arms. Coward she had screamed at Alex. Rebecca had slapped her.
“The doll doesn’t matter,” said Maureen. “What I want to know is what happened between you and James.”
Anna took a deep breath. “Maureen, we’ve just finished a year of being angry with one another. I don’t want to begin a lifetime of it. Leave it in the past where it belongs.”
“It belongs here. I need to know this. It’s important to me and to Alex. If James were your father, wouldn’t you want to know more?”
Anna shook her head. “I wouldn’t want to know that about my father.”
Anna collected the tea things and thought over how to begin. “Your father spent a great deal of time in Montreal, more with every passing year. Sometimes he would take your mother. Most times he wouldn’t. They grew apart in those last years. Mind you, I was very young. It’s hard to judge those things at that age.” Anna placed the cups and saucers in the sink and returned to her seat. “The trips had something to do with timber contracts. Anyway, once when he returned he brought you a new doll, a china doll.”
“I remember. It had a blue dress. I kept it until I went to school.”
What happened to it after that? Alex, who had kept so many of her things, had not kept that. Perhaps he had given it away? Why? Why had she not tried to keep it? Perhaps she had just lost interest in it.
Anna continued. “Your mother gave me your rag doll. I was playing with it in front of the house. You, your mother and mine were in the kitchen. James came up the path from the mill returning for his lunch. He saw me playing with the doll and asked me what I was doing with it.”
“I told him it was mine. He was furious. He struck me, saying I was a thief. Then he grabbed the doll. I did what any eight-year-old would do. I cried and ran for my mother. Jean told Rebecca to look after you. She would have a few words with James. She told me to come with her. Jean was tiny compared to James but when she was angry you could hear her voice the full length of the house. She marched into the dining room where James was having his lunch. Jean called him selfish and mean. She said she had given me the doll. He was to return it before he became the laughing stock of the township. That got to him. He fetched the doll and admitted he had been wrong. He gave it to me. It should have ended there but it didn’t. He told your mother not to give me anymore of your things. All Irish are born thieves. No point encouraging them.”
“With that Jean’s anger broke through. Something had been working at your mother for a long time and she could not hold it back any longer. She called him a bastard. Excuse my language. He loved only himself and his infected whores. He told her, with a voice as quiet as a mother soothing her child that she was the only whore he had never loved, and that her daughter was a whore’s daughter. She slapped him. He knocked her down and kicked her. As she lay on the floor, he finished eating his lunch. I remember how proud of himself he looked.”
“When I helped your mother up she looked at James sitting at the table pouring himself a brandy. I still see her face. Hate. Just pure hate.” Maureen sat back, her face lowered. Anna reached out and took her hands. “I’m sorry, Maureen. I wish it could have been different but I saw what I saw. I told my mother. I never told anyone else. Never.”
“I wish you had, Anna,” whispered Maureen. “I wish you had.”
“James had land, power, money, everything. Yet he was furious with a little girl for playing with a doll. My brothers and I hated him. Because we hated him, we hated Alex. Only later was I able to separate the two.”
“Did James ever say anything about the land, about how it came into the family?”
“James never discussed family matters with servants. Alex told us James bought it with the money he made during the war. He did know how to make money. To tell you the truth I never gave it much thought. Why?”
“Oh . . . just curious.”
As she walked back through the village Maureen thought about the papers she had seen, the portraits of her parents and the scars on Alex’s back. During the days that followed she learned more about James and Alex. Jacob told her about the early years when James had worked for long hours beside the men in the fields and bush. Then, when the money came in he withdrew to live the life of a lord. Those had been good years, before the cholera. Timber prices had been high. When the prices plummeted after James’ death, the money from the mill and tenants could not pay off his debts. Alex closed the mill paying the workers off with land, the only way he could meet his obligations and keep the men in the township. That was how he had gotten his place said Jacob.
From the Campbells she learned how Alex had granted them their land. Ian also told her about how Alex and he spent days tramping through the snow in a futile search for Sam Foley.
She stood upon her toes pressing herself close to her father’s portrait. Taking the frame between her hands she lifted it off the nail that had borne its weight for as many years as she could remember. From the silent pigment she tried to read what only James could tell her. He smiled mocking her for her impudence.
Two hours later Maureen looked up from her writing at Alex’s shrunken, sleeping face. The letter she was penning would be sent to Judge Strachan. Once she received her reply she would have the one remaining piece of information she would need before confronting Alex. “You lied to me again, didn’t you,” she whispered. “Not anymore, Alex. Not anymore.”
When Maureen had finished writing, she sanded the ink, folded the letter and placed it in an envelope. She resumed her reading, a treatise on the treatment of venereal disease. She had found it buried on a shelf of a bookcase. Not a proper subject for ladies, she admitted but Maureen was becoming very tired of being a lady.
The morning of August fifth brought hot clear weather. Before going to work George stopped by Alex’s room. He helped Alex out onto the front porch warning him he was not to venture any further. On the porch Alex remained until George rode off to Kilmarnock. Alex then called to Peter.
Peter led the way lugging a large wicker chair. Alex, sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat, hobbled behind carrying the boy’s book until they reached a spot shaded by the apple trees growing behind Kilmarnock Hill. A hickory walking stick, a gift whittled for Alex by Ian, helped give the old man support. It had been a generous act on Ian’s part but Alex hated the gift. It symbolized his inability to walk by himself.
Peter placed the chair as directed by Alex, under the shade of one of the larger trees. The boy curled himself up against the trunk of another tree and resumed reading the adventures of Mister Pickwick and Company.
Alex watched Jacob slashing grass. He reveled in the smell of the fresh grass and ripening fruit. Closing his eyes he felt the sun bathing him. A fine day he told himself. Each day was precious to him. Tomorrow, George would take them for a sail on the lake. He had not been out sailing for years.
George had also asked him about when he would tell Peter about his condition. It would have to be soon, but not today. Peter was enjoying himself with Mister Pickwick. Part of that cheerfulness was based upon his belief that Alex was recovering. Let him believe it for one more day.
Alex sat through the morning as Peter read to him. The old man then chatted with Jacob about the prospects for the coming harvest, and about Enid, Jacob’s wife, about their children and grandchildren. After Jacob went back to his work, Alex dozed until wakened by Maureen’s calling him in for lunch.
Peter hearing the woman approach wished Alex would tell her to leave. She was always interfering. Pulling his knees up in front of his face he stared deeper into his book.
Maureen marched towards them. “Alex?”
Alex kept his eyes closed. Rebecca had told him Maureen had been asking about James and himself. He had expected that. Soon she would know. Now he wished to be left in peace.
“Aren’t you coming in,” she asked.
Maureen looked down at the old man, his thin fingers wrapped around the knobbed head of his walking stick, his rheumy eyes adrift in a past she had never known. She told herself not to be a nuisance. Alex seemed content where he was. If he was willing to risk a scolding from Rebecca so be it. She looked up at the apple trees. “You always did like this place.”
“Aye. Did I ever tell you about how your mother planted these trees?”
At least a hundred times, Maureen told herself. “I’d like to hear about it.”
“Something I found out a long time ago. Someone who plants trees is a person who believes in the future. Your mother hated the clearing of the land. It was necessary. She knew that. The trees were the enemy. We couldn’t plant in a forest. Yet she always believed we were ruining something that would never be again. When the pine and birch was gone, with only stumps left to burn and dig out she chose this wee bit of acreage for her apple trees.”
“James and I told her it was a terrible site, too exposed to the wind, the soil too thin. Didn’t matter. She wanted them near the house so she could watch over them. They became her children until you came. She used to lug baskets of soil up from the lakeside, water and manure them. She built a windscreen. Slowly they grew, a few inches every year. She lost many but those that survived dug into the soil breaking through the rock. Some grew up twisted and stunted, but they are here, the stronger for the pain of growing and they’ll survive for generations. They’ll be here long after we’re dust.”
Alex would always end there, but not this time. The memories brought back other memories. “It’s a hard land, Maureen. God knows we didn’t know how hard when we came. So much work, pain and death have gone into it. Sometimes the people become as hard as the land, as rigid, as unforgiving. It’s the price for surviving here.”
Maureen looked across the fields towards the lake and the town on the other side. She imagined it as it must have been when James and Alex first came to this valley, marking this land as their own. She saw James, Alex and Jean working the land, bringing this community to life. It was an inspiring image but she could not shake off the feeling there was something wrong with it. “Why did you give the land away, Alex?”
Alex’s eyes flickered back to the present. “What?”
“So much work went into the land. Why did you just let it go?”
Alex closed his eyes. “Are you still harping on about that, lass? What is done is done. I can’t change that.”
“I’m not angry with you, Alex. It was your right to do as you wished with what was yours. I just want to know why.”
“I gave nothing away, lass. I sold it for what it was worth.”
“It was worth more than sixpence an acre.”
Alex shrugged. “Not to me. The fact it was worth more to others is their affair, not mine.”
“Still, you could have sold it at a better price. Even at a shilling an acre you could have been a wealthy man, Alex.”
“Could I? Wealth is a relative thing, lass. When I was a prisoner, I would have thought myself wealthy just to walk for an hour at night to look up at the stars. I am a wealthy man. I own the only thing I have wanted, myself.” “You could have rented it for sixpence an acre. People would have been glad enough for that.”
“People don’t come five thousand miles to rent land. They want their own.”
“Alex … I know that the land was yours. I saw the patent.”
Alex nodded. She would have known soon enough. What now?
“Why did the government give you the land? Was it because of what you did in the war?”
Alex sidestepped the question. “No, Maureen. That was the excuse, not the reason. In the years just after the war, times were bad. The government was terrified of revolution. They were aristocrats who had grown up with stories of the tumbrels and guillotines. They were determined it would never happen again, both at home and in the colonies. So some bright soul in the colonial office decided the Canadas needed a hereditary aristocracy to keep the colonials in line and to keep the Americans out. In French Canada they had the seigneurs, but not here, so they created one. The government gave land grants to former officers of the crown. They were to be the lairds of Canada, ruling over crofters just like in the old country. Because they assumed I was a staunch supporter of the king, of the established order, of the principles of aristocratic government, they gave me eighteen thousand acres.”
“You didn’t want it?”
Alex shrugged. “A man doesn’t say no to eighteen thousand acres. The point is, Maureen, only one aristocracy means anything, that of the mind and heart. You don’t need land for that.”
“Why did you make everyone think the land was James?”
“Because of what I am.” He placed his right hand in hers. “Look at me, lass.”
She looked down to see Alex’s shrunken frame perched on the edge of the chair. Two reddened eyes blinked behind old spectacles. The eyes were sunk deep into a head too large for the body supporting it.
“In all the years you’ve known me, have you ever thought of me as a lord?”
Maureen felt too ashamed to answer. “Alex . . . ”
He placed her smooth white hands in his. “For a system to work you have to believe in it. I never could.” Dropping his hands away he leaned back. “James could. He looked a lord. He believed he was one so everyone else believed it. What he couldn’t understand until the day he died was that a way of life dying in the old country could not hope to survive here.”
“To own land is one thing. To assume it gives you the right to own others, that’s something else. No lords live here, unless you assume we all are. The land is too vast and the people are different from those of the old country. They have taken their lives into their own hands. They have risked themselves, their children, to come here to be their own masters, not to serve someone else.”
“By the end of his life James was almost out of money. He wanted to live the life of a laird. That takes money. His main sources of revenue were from the rents and the timber. He could not raise the rents without losing the tenants. The timber was being cleared out, becoming more expensive to harvest with every year. If he hadn’t died he would have had to start selling the land. I just let it go.”
“Some men have a passion for the land. I’m not one. The Algonquin who were here before us used to say that no one owns the land. You just use it as you use the water and the animals. I think they’re right. All I know is that I didn’t need the land. I needed the people. It has been a fair exchange, the land for the people.”
“I knew a Frenchman once. We spent hours talking about the war and the revolution and about what they had all meant. About most things we disagreed but one thing made sense to us. All people, equal or not, bad or good, all of them have a right to live as human beings. It’s a simple idea but when you’ve thought it out, nothing seems the same after that.”
Alex slumped back into his chair. “When I went back to Glasgow after the war, no one believed it, not the poor, not the rich. Someone always had to be left out, the blacks, the Jews, the Catholics. Who didn’t matter. What mattered was that the poorest, the most ragged could point at someone and say, no, not you. Then I came here. When I looked at these hills, I knew it didn’t have to matter what a person had been or where he was from, just what he wanted to be. Here I could break that chain of misery stretching back for centuries. I could break it, not just for a few, but for hundreds, even thousands. I hoped the people coming here would understand that.”
Maureen remembered what Rebecca had told her about Alex’s waiting. “They didn’t, did they Alex?”
Alex shrugged. “I never asked them to believe it. You can’t call a man free and tell him what to think. When I saw this land, I saw the men who died like animals in Spain and France. Instead of the lake I saw the despair and the hunger in the streets of Glasgow. For all the good I had done there I might have well been emptying the sea with a spoon.”
“So you brought the people here?”
“I brought no one.”
“But you just said . . . ”
“They bring themselves. My choice was just to let them stay. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s their lives they’re living here, not mine. They came here because of what the land promised, but they made themselves free. What the land promises is a chance to be better than what they were.”
The people that walked in darkness
Have seen a great light. They that
Dwell in the shadow of death
Upon them hath the light shined.
“That promise is what this land is about. That is what it’s always been about. It’s not about us. The ones already here. It’s about them, the ones who dream of coming. That’s what the dying was for, the pain that went into this land, the only thing that made it bearable, at least to me. If we were to tell them they couldn’t come it would all be for nothing.”
Maureen recalled the passage Alex had quoted. From the book of Isaiah it referred to the promise of the Messiah not to any earthly land. Alex had given away his land due to a theological error. She should tell him but did not have the heart for it. Besides she could not change the past. “So anyone who comes . . .. ?”
“If they have the courage to come we should have the courage to let them stay. What do they ask? Nothing more than what our people wanted, a chance. In return they give us their lives, dreams, skills and they remind us of what we were once.”
“So we just take in anyone? Russians, Chinese?”
“Even the Sam Foleys?”
Alex nodded. “Even the Sam Foleys. Maybe you can choose lass. I can’t. I did that once. People aren’t eggs you can judge by age, color or size. I just take them all.” He called to Peter. “Give me your book and take the chair. We’ll head back in now.”
“It’s a wonderful dream Alex” said Maureen, supporting him by his arm. “Some day; Alex.”
“Aye,” Too tired to say anymore, he watched the child walking in front of him carrying the chair.