Alex :Chapter Twenty – One

The Trees

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.”

“Rebecca.”

“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?”

“James?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Ask Anna about the doll.”

“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?”

“Just curious.”

“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.”

“Know what?”

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.

“Later.”

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?”

“Why not?”

“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.

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Alex : Chapter Twenty

ChapterTwenty

Many Meetings

For three days Alex drifted between sleep and delirium. George told Maureen and Rebecca that they should prepare themselves for the worst. He took Peter aside and explained that Alex was gravely ill. He did not go further hoping that the boy would understand what that might mean. If Peter did he showed no sign of it to the doctor.

On the morning of the fourth day, just after nine, in a dry whisper Alex asked Rebecca for a glass of water.

He had hardly finished his first sip before demanding to see three people, Peter, Maureen and Ian Campbell. Rebecca told him to lie still and not be an old fool. What he needed was rest not visitors. Alex replied by cursing and declaring that if she would not bring them he would. Afraid that upsetting him would do more harm than complying with his wishes she went off to fetch Peter and Maureen. She then sent Jacob into Kilmarnock with a message to Ian to come.

Alex’s bullying did not impress George. He insisted upon examining the old man before consenting to his having visitors. Maureen and Rebecca waited outside Alex’s door. When George emerged he told them that Alex was strong enough for visitors if the visits were kept short. “He is not in pain at the moment. The fever is gone. Where he finds his strength is something I can’t explain. It’s only a reprieve, mind.” George cautioned. “But while it lasts I can’t see why he shouldn’t have as normal a life as possible.”

As he lay in bed Alex thought about what would come during the next few weeks. He had three, perhaps four weeks of effective consciousness left. After that the pain would reach such intensity that the opium needed to counter it would rob his mind of any clarity of thought. Before that happened his defenses would have to be in place .

He considered calling Peter and Maureen in together. He would demand, as a favor to himself, that each accept the other as members of the same family. It had been a pleasant image, Alex lying in bed dictating his terms, Maureen and Peter so guilt-stricken that they would comply with whatever he demanded. It would never have worked though. He had always found the final scene of reconciliation in Romeo and Juliet a bit far-fetched. He suspected that a Montague would have picked a fight with a Capulet on the way home from the funeral. Peter and Maureen could not be forced to like each other. Besides, how would Peter react once he knew the truth about Alex’s

condition. He would have to be told but how? It would have to be in a way that would allow him to consider the

McKays as friends. He could not do that with Maureen standing there pouting and feeling slighted.

When Maureen and Peter arrived Alex asked to speak with Peter first. Maureen, about to protest that by right of blood she should have precedence, thought better of it. “I’ll wait outside uncle.”

The boy, Alex noticed, had taken on color, probably from being outside. A good sign he thought. He waited until Maureen had closed the door.

“Sit, lad.”

Peter settled himself into the large chair besides Alex’s bed. “You are feeling better now? We can go home now?”

“You see the books,” Alex asked him, pointing at the bookshelves lining the walls of his room. “This is our home now.”

“No.” Peter shook his head. “I don’t like it here. We will go back when you are better, yes?”

Alex patted the back of Peter’s hand. “Lad, I’m not getting any better.”

“That’s not true.” Peter remembered the lies that Doctor McKay had told him. The doctor had told the same lies to Alex. “You will be better.”

“Old men do not get younger,” said Alex.

“I can work. I can take care of you.”

“Aye. I know you can but I need Doctor McKay’s help as well, as I need Mrs. McKay’s.”

“No. She doesn’t like you.”

“She was angry and she did something that she is sorry for. Haven’t you ever done something like that?”

Peter remembered his shouting at Alex as the man collapsed from pain but that was different. He had not meant it as she had.

“You can’t judge a person by one moment in their life. It’s not fair. You do as she bids. You are to help her and Rebecca and the doctor in any way that you can. You gave your word to serve me. Remember that.”

“But I didn’t give it to them,” whispered Peter afraid that they might overhear. “I gave it to you.”

“And I’m holding you to it. You’ll bide here. You’ll mind your manners and you’ll do as you’re bid. Now you can spend some afternoons and evenings with me but I don’t want any complaints from anyone about your behaviour. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. One other thing. I may be asking you to do some odd-sounding things over the next few days. Do I have your word that you will obey me in all things?”

Peter did not know what Alex meant but understanding did not matter. “Yes.”

“Good lad.” Alex smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t be asking you to break the law.”

“When can I see you again?”

“Soon lad. This evening perhaps. You ask Doctor McKay about it. Now go back to your chores.”

After Peter left he considered what he would say to Maureen. He would ask her to give Peter time to settle in and remind her of her promise to do something for the boy. Peter’s attack had done great harm but any feelings of contriteness on her part might offset that. His plan had one flaw. Maureen had her own priorities.

She remained beside the room of his door, her face down her hands folded in penitence. “Alex, I am so . . .”

Alex waved her in. “That’s over now, Maureen. My fault as much as yours.”

“I had no right to hit you.”

“It’s all right lass. Doesn’t matter. Come in.”

Maureen closed the door and sat beside him. Alex was about to begin when from out of the pocket of her dress Maureen pulled out an old black notebook and placed it on Alex’s lap. She opened it to reveal a circlet of tissue-wrapped flowers. “I think this is yours,” she said.

Alex peered at it through his spectacles. He should have burned those damn envelopes he told himself as he touched the dried petals. He should have burned them all months ago.

“I found the envelopes. Alex. All the things that I gave you, all hidden away.”

He stroked the dried petals as he tried to think of what to say. Anger shook his voice. “You have no right… no right at all to go through a man’s things.”

“Why did you keep them, Alex?”

Alex’s anger faded. He had to find a way of steering the conversation towards the subject of Peter.

“Maureen . . . I wanted you . . .”

Maureen pressed on. “I was five years old when I made it. Why did you keep it?”

“It was all so long ago.”

Maureen placed her right hand in his. “I know that you love me, Alex. I am sorry for what I did but I did it because I was angry, thinking all those years that you had never wanted me. You always kept my gifts, my letters, everything except me. Why?”

Accepting the possibility that he could be found out Alex had considered various stories to tell. He had three factors in his favor. He was dying and could therefore plead tiredness or pain allowing him to keep the story short and vague. Second, Maureen would want a story that would fit with what she knew of her father. The third was that all women were sentimentalists at heart. Why would an old man keep a gift from a child? She was his niece, as dear to him as life itself. It sounded a bit maudlin but would serve as a beginning. “You’re my niece. Why shouldn’t I keep it?”

“My mother and father didn’t. Why hide it as if you were pretending that you didn’t care?”

The most irritating thing about Maureen thought Alex was that she never knew when to stop. “I didn’t want to come between you and the memory of James. An old man’s foolishness, Maureen. I am sorry for that.”

“You must have loved my father very much?”

“Aye.”

“Alex, all of this . . . ” She was about to say deception but decided that it would be impolite, “Belittling or hiding of your own emotions to protect my feelings for my father, it was all unnecessary. Why couldn’t you . . .”

“Lass, I’m tired.”

“Just another question, please, uncle.”

Alex let out a low dramatic sigh. “Well?”

“Why didn’t you come to my wedding? I’ve never understood that uncle. Was it the illness?”

“No, at least not entirely.”

“Then why?”

“Lass, I haven’t been out of Kilmarnock in eight years. I never leave if I can help it.”

“For your own niece’s wedding? You would have been back in two days at most.”

“And if during those two days a child died that I could have saved, what would I tell its mother?” Alex paused to place the notebook and circlet of flowers on the nightstand. “Besides would you have wanted me there?”

Maureen thought of how she had dreaded his appearing in his clumsy shabbiness, shaming her in front of George’s relations. She had also delayed the ceremony for two hours hoping that he would appear. “Yes. I did want you there. If you had explained yourself I could have moved it to Kilmarnock but you never did. You never do.”

Alex slipped a note of tired pleading into his voice. “Maureen, please. There is something else that I would like to discuss with you.”

Maureen reminded herself that she should not overtax his strength. “Of course.”

“I wanted to know, lass, what you think about Peter. You’ve had time to know him a little better now, haven’t you?”

That thing always came first with Alex. “I suppose I have.” She tried to keep her voice free of her dislike for Peter. What else could she say? Maureen had felt his fists striking her as he had fought against whatever demons lived inside him. She recalled the pain and fear caused by his attack. The child was not in his right mind. She therefore pitied him. She could say two things in his favor. He was a hard worker. Jacob had told her that he seemed a serious-minded lad not like some with whom he had worked. Peter’s devotion to Alex seemed genuine. Still none of that changed her basic conviction. The boy remained too great a danger to keep at Kilmarnock Hill. “He is willing enough when it comes to his work.”

“Aye, well that’s fine.” Take whatever comfort you can Alex. “I wanted to appoint you and George as his legal guardians.You have no objection, I hope?”

Maureen did but did not say so. She remembered what George had told her about her driving Alex away when he had asked for a favor. “No. Of course not but you needn’t concern yourself yet uncle. Give yourself a few days to rest before worrying about such things.”

“Aye. I’ll rest now.” Alex closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. Maureen pecked him on the forehead and slipped out of the room. Once she was gone Alex opened his eyes. My God he thought. Once that woman gets started she never stops. He closed his eyes again as he heard Rebecca coming in to sit with him.

***

Ian scratched his head. Why Alex wished to see him was as much a mystery to Ian as it was to everyone else in Kilmarnock Hill. “It’s not as if I’m family” he told Anna and Rebecca as he sipped a cool glass of lemonade.

“Alex always did have a strange definition of family,” Anna sniffed. She quieted at a look from her mother.

Ian found Peter sitting next to Alex reading to him from Gulliver’s Travels. Alex thanked Ian for coming. He tapped the boy’s right shoulder. “Peter go to the kitchen and see if you can help Rebecca.”

The two men waited until Peter had finished dragging his feet out of the room.

“Lock the door, Ian.”

Puzzled, Ian did so. “Alex . . .”

“Hush.”

Only after Peter’s feet ceased sounding on the stairs did Alex begin. He started with a question that Ian considered of questionable taste.

“How many people know that I’m dying?”

Bad luck to talk of such things thought Ian. “Alex you’re not dying. You’ll be as right as . . .”

”Don’t be a bloody fool,” snapped Alex. “How many?”

“Well there’s talk throughout the district but it’s just a rumor.”

“It’s not a rumor, Ian. But that’s not why you’re here. I want you to do two things for me.”

“I will if I can.”

Alex lay back. He could feel the pain returning but he did not want the opium yet. “Take a letter to Judge Strachan tomorrow. I was going to Perth to give it to him but you’ll have to do it for me.”

“I’ll see to it.”

“There’s one other thing. Bring Paisley here.”

“Paisley?” Ian knew the man, a writer fellow who was spending the summer in Kilmarnock, not a bad type from what he had seen of him, a good judge of horseflesh.

“Aye.” Alex debated how much he could tell Ian. He would need help. Ian had to know just enough to want to help. “He works for Radek.”

Bewildered Ian sat back in his chair and tried to think. He could not imagine a more dissimilar man to Radek than Paisley. A friendly sort and a regular churchgoer, Paisley was not above standing a man a drink.

“Every day.” said Alex, “he posts a letter to Kingston on the morning coach. The letters go to an attorney. A Mister George Chapman. Do you remember him, Ian?”

Chapman had been the attorney Ian had written his letter to, the letter that had brought Radek to Kilmarnock. “Aye.”

“Ask Joe Morris about the letters. I’ve also received a letter from Chapman. Paisley’s letters are forwarded to a company in New York City. Guess who the director is.”

“Radek?”

“Paisley is Radek’s spy.”

Ian stood. “I’ll have a word with Mister Paisley. He’ll be on the next steamboat out. I promise you that.”

“Sit. You’ll do no such thing.”

“But Alex . . .”

“The man has broken no law. He has a perfect right to use her majesty’s mail. Besides he may not know

anything about the boy. You’ll leave him alone.”

Ian sat looking very disgruntled. “Then why mention this to me?” he grumbled.

“Two reasons. First, Mister Paisley is our barometer.”

“Our what?”

“Barometer. An instrument, Ian, used to show a rise or fall in air pressure. Seamen use it for predicting storms. If Paisley is busy writing his letters I know that all is well. If he should suddenly disappear, receive visitors or stop sending letters, then something is in the wind. Don’t molest him. Be friendly but watch him.”

“If you say so. What’s the other reason?”

“If anything should happen to me or to the boy, Paisley is the only one apart from you and possibly Chapman who can testify to the connection between Peter and Radek. We may need him as a material witness so treat him with respect. Now go and tell him that I’ve invited him for a visit. I’ve always wanted to have a chat with a literary man.”

“Are you certain about this, Alex?”

“I’m not certain about anything. Just do it.”

Over Rebecca’s protests Alex insisted upon meeting with Paisley. Rebecca could not understand why a man so ill should insist upon receiving a stranger.

“You don’t even know him.”

“I’ve never had the chance to meet a professional writer before. It’ll only be for a few minutes.”

“You’d think he was Mister Dickens the way you’re carrying on,” she complained as she and Peter helped Alex to put on his coat.

“You’ve always said that I should be more sociable, Rebecca. Well now I am. Have the tea and cake brought up when he arrives.”

Still grumbling Rebecca left for the kitchen. Doctor McKay might be agreeable to this nonsense. She was not. A man in Alex’s position should be concerned with more serious matters.

When Paisley was led upstairs by Rebecca he more than half-expected a trap awaiting him in the old man’s room. MacTavish, having discovered that he was a spy, had decided to inflict some terrible vengeance upon him. He knew the idea to be ridiculous. MacTavish was neither a Fenian nor a miscreant. He was a dying old man who wished to spend a few minutes chatting about literature. MacTavish and his adopted son playing chess was hardly an ominous sight.

The old man seemed skeletal, his flesh so pale as to be almost transparent. Although not as feeble as when Paisley had last seen him, unconscious on the back of McKay’s wagon, it seemed to Paisley that MacTavish would not be in this world much longer. Still the old fellow seemed cheerful enough. He rose to greet his visitor, an attempt so labored that it confirmed Paisley’s belief that he would soon be on his way back to Molly.

“Pleased that you could come, Mister Paisley. I’ve been looking forward to inviting you for a chat but other things prevented it.”

“Quite understandable sir. I hear that you’ve not been well. Nothing serious I trust?”

Alex shrugged. “The curse of old age. Have a seat, please.” He pointed at an empty chair. “You must try some of Rebecca’s ginger cake. She has always had a deft hand with sweets. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to indulge anymore but please help yourself.”

The two men chatted for a few minutes about events in Kilmarnock, the news in the British Whig, the Baldwin Municipal Act and the possible extension of the American railroad system into Canada. Alex then asked Mister Paisley’s opinion, as a literary man, about some of his favorite writers. Alex wished to know how he would compare the newer writers to those popular in Alex’s youth. Thackeray to Scott for example. Dickens, Alex considered overrated. Thackeray seemed to have a keener perception of the human condition. Had Mister Paisley done much reading of American writers, Hawthorne for instance?

Paisley munched on the cake and replied in vague generalities stating that most people seemed to prefer modern writers because they were new, “don’t you know.”

If this is a literary man, thought Alex, then I am an elephant. He told Peter to go downstairs and help Rebecca. When Peter had gone he resumed. “Don’t you find it difficult Mister Paisley being the outsider in Kilmarnock? I know how closed in and suspicious a small town such as this can be towards an outsider, especially as deep into the bush as we are.”

“Everyone has been very kind sir.”

“Still, it’s not easy. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider myself, more through temperament than anything else. My son, Peter, he’s adopted. He’s a stranger here just as you are. You might say the three of us are pretty much birds of the same feather.”

“I find it hard to think of you as a stranger here sir. I understand you were a founder of the settlement. Surely if anyone belonged here it would be you.”

“Residing in a place doesn’t always mean that you belong there. The point that I’m trying to make sir is that being an outsider can be very difficult. In the old days back in Scotland or Ireland if an outbreak of disease occurred or if a serious crime happened, the outsider would be the one to be accused. Not very fair don’t you think?”

“People being people you have to expect that. Human nature, ain’t it?”

Alex nodded. “Very much so, and human nature is very slow to change. Most of these people brought the old ways of thinking with them. Scots, Irish, neither have changed much. Now suppose, just for argument’s sake that a serious crime was to be committed in Kilmarnock, a robbery or homicide, at whom would people point? The outsider, us, Mister Paisley.”

The cake in Mister Paisley’s mouth had lost its flavor Was MacTavish just rambling or did he have a point to make? Paisley could not help feeling that MacTavish was trying to warn him but about what? He smiled and wiped the crumbs from his lips. “Well, we’d better hope that nothing like that happens while I’m here.”

“Will you be here much longer, Mister Paisley?”

“Not much longer I should think. A couple of weeks. I haven’t decided.”

Alex smiled. “I’ll look forward to speaking with you again before you leave.”

Pleading tiredness, which was true, Alex regretted that he could not continue with their little chat. Alex waited until Paisley had gone before sinking back into his chair. His body shook as waves of pain surged through it.

What the hell was that all about Paisley wondered as he rode back. Had MacTavish been accusing him of something, all that talk about the outsider being the prime suspect. Paisley had been a police officer. He knew that community members and relatives committed most crimes, not outsiders. Anyway who was planning to commit a crime here? No one, as far as he knew. He admitted that there was more to the man than he had first thought but how much more? That was the problem with this business. It made you suspicious of everyone.

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Alex Chapter : Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen

Professional Courtesies

The message from Kingston arrived in Radek’s office on the sixth of July. Red Two. Translated it meant that Doctor MacTavish was dying. Red one would have meant death. Radek would wire Chapman in Kingston who would send the message on to Boyd or Paisley as he now called himself. Radek wished that he could act upon the news but another task had priority.

Radek could never understand how some men could sacrifice their wealth for the sake of satisfying a grudge. Grudges cost money. If MacTavish had the good sense to die Radek saw no reason to interfere. Boyd would send further details concerning the old man’s condition. Radek would wait for his letter before sending the Leugers north. Dying men sometimes recovered. Determine the water’s temperature before diving in. The pig could wait.

Frederick remained his immediate concern. Radek conceded that he should be grateful to the pig. With Josef gone, Frederick’s decay had accelerated. Once an attractive figurehead, Frederick had lost even that ability. His face had grown puffy, his speech slurred. He scribbled away at his manuscript lost in a daze of opium and alcohol. He raved about great air armies of the future terrorising nations. He warned against racial contamination, against the mixing of pure Germanic stock with that of lesser breeds, a possible reaction to life in America. From time to time Frederick would take time from his writings to rant about returning to Austria.

Radek had ended that and other things. After Frederick had once again announced his irrevocable decision to take passage to Europe, Radek had bowed and asked to withdraw. He soon returned with the Leuger twins. Without waiting for permission he stepped into Frederick’s study followed by Franz and Ferdie.

Frederick looked up from his scribbling. “Well?”

“Franz and Ferdinand have something to show you sir,” said Radek with his usual tone of obsequiousness.

“I’m busy. Go away.”

“About America sir.”

“America?”

Radek bowed and stepped back out into the hallway closing the door behin d him. He waited ten minutes. When he re-entered Franz and Ferdie were standing behind Frederick’s desk.Frederick’s chair had been overturned, its clawed feet reaching up into the air. The twins, perspiring heavily were kicking a curled moaning object on the floor. They stepped aside toallow Radek to savour the cringing, bloodied, mound of bruises.

“You see, Freddie,” said Radek using his silk handkerchief to wipe the blood off

Frederick’s face; “in America you are nothing. Here each man has to prove his usefulness. The time has come for you to prove yours.”

Frederick’s reply was a pleading whimper not to let them hurt him anymore.

“No one wants to hurt you,” said Radek “Put him in his chair, gently.”

Ferdie put the chair upright. Franz hauled the baron from off the floor and pushed him into the chair. A pen and two documents were placed before Frederick’s dazed eyes. One was an authorisation to transfer fifty thousand dollars to the account of Liberty Investments. The other was a deed selling his house in New York to Karl Radek for one dollar. Radek showed him where to sign. Frederick scribbled out his signature.

“Now you are learning to be useful Freddie. If you are, no one will hurt you. Since you like it in this room, you may remain here as my guest. You may ha ve your ink, paper, opium and alcohol, as much as you wish. In return you will sign any papers I’ll bring you. We’ll forget this nonsense about going back to Austria shall we?”

Frederick murmured yes.

“Oh, something else. You’ll be glad to know Freddie that we found Josef.”

Frederick lifted his bloodied face. “Josef?” he whispered.

“Yes.” Radek placed a one-dollar bill on the desk. “The pig is dead. Ferdie strangled him,

Your fault you know. A filthy habit your fondness for boys. They don’t like that sort of thing in America. Don’t feel too bad. There’s still the opium. That should keep you happy.” He barked atthe Leugers. “Clean him up.”

Radek calculated that Frederick would last a year, more than enough time in which to reclaim the pig. He had not counted on Frederick’s inability to do anything right. On the morning of the twenty-ninth of July Ferdie brought Frederick his breakfast. He found the baron lying dead on the floor of his study. A physician declared the baron a victim of heart failure from overindulgence in alcohol and opium. Frederick was just twenty-three, the last direct heir to theVon Kraunitz fortune.

Radek waited for the police to remove the body to the coroner’s office. The overseer stepped back into the study. Scattered on the floor were the last pages of Frederick’s manuscript.

On the very last page Frederick had scrawled one word over and over. Vergaben. Forgive. Radek crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it into the fireplace. As he stuffed Frederick’s manuscript into the fireplace Radek cursed Frederick. He had not wanted this. He had restricted Frederick’s supply of opium to prevent such a possibility. Towards the end, once the transfer of funds had been completed he would have increased it but not until then. The bastard musthave kept some hidden. He would have to see to the funeral and consult with Mister Godwin concerning the will. He could give Godwin a share of the money to ensure his co-operation.

He thought about the next few years. The Austrian government would seize whatever properties remained in Austria. Let them. Most were bankrupt shells. The American holdings were Radek’s. MacTavish might have even done Radek a favour in hanging on to Josef, not that he would benefit by it. With Josef installed as a new figurehead the transfer of funds would continue. Within a few weeks with MacTavish dead, Radek would fetch Josef. He would bring Katrina along. She would enjoy the trip and she had always been able to manage the pig better than her brothers. Within a few years Radek would be so wealthy people would not notice Josef’s sad demise.

One unanswered question nibbled at Radek’s sense of self-satisfaction. During the past year he had the feeling someone had been working against him. He could not shake off the moment when MacTavish had told him the pig could speak English. The man might have been bluffing or exaggerating but if not? If the old man had spoken the truth, Josef’s knowledge of English meant two things. The pig was not as stupid as he thought and someone had betrayed him.

He considered the Leugers. Absurd. Only Katrina had the intelligence and interest to teach the boy but she had nothing to gain. Besides she could only understand a few words of English. Anyway she was only a woman. Still, he recalled a brief scene that had troubled him. It had occurred during their first visit to the house in Harlem. The estate agent had gone off with Frederick to examine the master bedroom on the second floor. Radek knew one did not judge a house by the master’s bedroom but by the servants’ bedrooms. If they were in good condition chances were the rest of the house was sound. He poked at the window frame of a servant’s room. The window overlooked the garden. He looked down to see Katrina and the pig staring at a large chestnut tree. The pig looked at Katrina who nodded. Could Katrina have been plotting with the pig? Not likely. Her brothers would have told him. For all he knew the two might have just been admiring the tree. No. He had a far likelier choice than Katrina.

Frederick. Radek could imagine the pig wheedling the fool until Freddie agreed to teach him. The man had been enough of an idiot to believe Josef’s professions of loyalty. God knows what the pig told him when they were in bed together. Clever little bastard. Radek did not mind granting the pig one small grain of respect. It never hurt to show respect to an enemy, professional courtesy from one combatant to another. Napoleon would have understood.

***

Frederick’s funeral was sparsely attended. The Austrian consul, Doctor Schneideman brought a wreath of flowers. Radek met Mister Godwin there. They agreed to meet the following day for the reading of Frederick’s will. Godwin asked about Josef. Radek told him that Josef was ill. He hurried back to his office to keep an appointment with Mister Richard Prentice. Mister Prentice owned a slave-breeding plantation on the lower James River. He exported slaves to the cotton producing states of the lower Mississippi. He had come to New York seeking capital to expand his business. The brokerage houses had cold-shouldered him until he met Mister Radek.

The simplicity of Prentice’s scheme appealed to Radek. Control the source of production in the east. They could secure contracts with Southern ship owners and railways to move the slaves as far west as Texas.

“Too many slaves dying on the way,” Prentice complained. “Ones that get there are more dead than alive. You have to sell at a reduced price or spend time fattening them up. You bring them west by train, say fifty in a cattle car. They arrive fit and ready to work. You get top price. Don’t hardly lose none.”

A top field hand in Mississippi could fetch as much as twelve hundred dollars, a house girl eight hundred, a child four hundred. A regular series of transports bringing thousands of able-bodied slaves to expanding cotton fields, even considering the resulting depreciation in prices could earn millions. The idea was intriguing.

The next morning Radek kept his appointment with Mister Godwin. As Radek settled into a comfortable leather chair Godwin opened his safe and drew out two large manila envelopes. The thinner envelope consisted of Frederick’s will. Godwin slit the envelope open with an ivory letter opener and drew out the papers. He studied them for a moment and asked Radek if he would care for something to drink. Radek shook his head. Godwin began with the usual declaration made by Frederick that he considered himself to be of sound mind.

Poor Frederick, Radek mused. He had never been right about anything. As he contemplated the silver knob of his cane Radek’s thoughts drifted toward Canada. He would have to get the pig back without hurting it in too obvious a fashion. Josef might be quite willing to return once he knew of his wealth.

Godwin continued reading in a flat monotone. Frederick had divided his supposed property into two parts. The land and monies remaining in Austria would go to the church. In return they would hold high masses in the chapel in Marienberg, one for his parents, one for Father Schiller. The house in New York, the furnishings and just over four million American dollars were to go to Josef Krivanek.

“Said Josef Krivanek is to be placed under the immediate guardianship of Mister Richard Godwin until he should attain his majority.”

Radek blinked.

Godwin finished. “Dated this day of our lord, the seventh of June, eighteen hundred and fifty.”

Puzzled Radek leaned forward. “Excuse me did you say that you were to become …..Josef’s guardian?”

“No. I did not say it,” smiled Godwin. “His Excellency said it.”

“But his Excellency told me…”

“Yes?”

“I would be Josef’s guardian. After all, I know him better than anyone. The boy trusts me.”

“I only know what’s written here.” Godwin held the will out to Radek.

Radek read the will and reread it. In his mind he reread the paper he had found in Frederick’s manuscript stating his intention to make Radek Josef’s guardian. He placed the will on the desk. “When I saw you at our last meeting you said as much.”

“No sir. You just assumed that I did. Whatever the baron may or may not have led to you to believe was between you and him. However, he did leave you this.” Godwin picked up the other envelope. “The baron instructed me to hand you this in person.”

Godwin handed him the other envelope. Radek slit it open. He found three sets of documents and a letter written in German.

Herr Radek:

By now Mister Godwin has told you that the terms of my will are not what you expected. I never quite believed your theory about Josef cutting himself by accident although I tried. Josef also informed me that his family died of typhus. A tiny detail I know, too unimportant for you to be concerned with but I could not understand how an entire family could perish without the doctor I appointed even looking at them. Why was it not mentioned in any correspondence related to Jablunka?

I could not help worrying about Josef when he rose late one night. I pretended to be asleep and watched as he dressed. He seemed nervous. One hand was closed as if he were hiding something in it. I followed him downstairs. There he met you. I watched him as he handed you a key which I thought odd as you already controlled every key in Marienberg, but you had to have the one to my manuscript too, didn’t you? I knew then how to play a little trick on you. I would do everything that you wanted to me to do. I would be as stupid as you wished me to be, Just as Josef had pretended with me.

You are not a very clever man Karl. Too many coincidences do not bear up well under scrutiny. Why would a man as devoted to the church as Father Schiller commit suicide? He must have gone mad. Strange he should go mad just after demanding your resignation.

You wanted America. You could have America. That would give me the time to understand the best way of stopping you. The only problem was getting you away from New York long enough to contact Mister Godwin. So I brought Josef north to Canada. Eventually he would run. I stayed away from him during the day to make it easier for him. When that did not work I left my key in the door. With him gone all I had to do was to send my loyal Karl after him. With a three hundred-mile start the chance of your finding him was remote. A callous way to treat him? Yes, but he was only a pig keeper’s son. I had the honour of my illustrious family to avenge.

Why did you appoint Suk as coach driver to my mother, Karl? That poor stupid woman. You tried the same trick with me by hiring Josef. You repeat yourself too often Karl. It shows a lack of imagination. You may wonder why knowing all this I did not return to Austria. This was the only way I could bait the trap. Besides fifty more years of being me? No thank you. Remember Dante Karl? The innermost circle of Hell? I will keep a place for you.

Radek looked at the documents. They were almost identical. Also in German they accused him of the deaths of Albrecht and Sopie Von Kraunitz and of Father Joann Schiller. On the back of each was a reminder that English translations were in the hands of Mister Godwin. If anything were found to have happened to Josef, Godwin had permission to release them for publication.

Radek touched his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. As legal documents the papers were worthless but they would leave his future in New York in ruins. “They’re nothing,” he told Godwin. “Just concerning his estates in Austria.”

Godwin frowned.

Radek slipped the papers into his coat pocket. He tugged at his coat sleeves to keep them from sliding up. The muggy summer air had caused him to perspire. What should he do? First he should not panic. He still held the property in Harlem. A half-million of Frederick’s money had been transferred. He held twenty thousand in bank drafts and ten thousand in gold coin. He was a wealthy man. Not as wealthy as he had wished but it was enough. So Frederick had fooled him? So what. Frederick was dead. If New York was lost other places waited. He could move out to California. A new name and a half million he could start over with nothing to hold him to the past. “I understand that the baron left some other papers with you?”

“Yes.”

“Have you any instructions concerning them?”

“That depends, Mister Radek.”

“Depends?”

“Yes.” Godwin leaned forward the coldness of his eyes undercutting the friendliness of his voice. “Tell me sir. Where is Josef Krivanek?”

How could Radek hope to bribe a man about to handed four million dollars? He would have to fend him off. “Josef? …. I really don’t know.”

A full minute passed before Godwin spoke again. Each word dripped suspicion. “Why is that, Mister Radek?”

“His Excellency did not tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

Radek looked quite puzzled. “My apologies. I assumed that he had.” Radek explained how Josef, having robbed the baron of a hundred dollars had fled into the Canadian wilderness somewhere near Niagara Falls. Radek himself had led the search for the boy. He still had a man looking for him. Perhaps Mister Godwin would be willing to lend some assistance in tracking Josef.

“I think I could arrange something” said Godwin. The whole affair smelled as high as a crate of rotting eggs. Having lied to him at the funeral about Krivanek, Radek was probably lying again. “You asked about some papers?”

“Yes.”

“If Josef is not found alive within two months of the baron’s death I am to release all of his papers to the press and to the Austrian and American governments.”

“I see.” Radek thought for a moment. “Canada is a very large country.”

“So it is. I would appreciate having the name of your man and where he may be found.”

“Of course.”

Godwin slid a pencil and sheaf of paper across the desk. Radek scribbled out a fictitious name and address in Niagara Falls New York. Pleading an urgent appointment elsewhere he rose and bowed. The lawyer did not rise. Having assured Godwin that he would contact his office in the next few days Radek hurried out of the room. Godwin picked up the paper. As he studied it he considered whom he could send to find the boy.

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Alex : Chapter Eighteen

   Marks of The Past

George and Ian carried Alex up to his old bedroom. As she watched her uncle being placed on his bed it occurred to Maureen that she had never paid the room much attention.  Its  furnishings were simple; a dresser, a washstand, a table, a large chair, a small mirror and an oval throw rug, items that could be found in any other bedroom.   When Alex had lived there he had his books, his chest and his picture of General Moore.  When his things were moved back in it would again become his room.

The men left the women to undress Alex.  Rebecca brought out one of George’s clean nightshirts. Maureen supported Alex as Rebecca pulled the shirt down over his head.  Maureen had never seen her uncle naked.  He had such a small body, almost birdlike.  As she held him Maureen saw the scars.  Weathered ridges spanning his back, they ran across the shoulders and down as far as the base of his spine.  She felt the roughness of the old scar tissue as she helped lean Alex down onto the mattress.

“What happened to him,” she asked Rebecca as they sipped tea in the kitchen.  “Those marks. Where did they come from?”

“The French flogged him, must have been almost forty years ago now.”

“Flogged?  Why would they have . . .?”

“It happened when he was a prisoner of war. He never talked about it.  My Padraic earned a lash or two in his time but nothing like that.  God knows what they were like when they were new.  It must have taken months for them to heal.  I used to tell him they were nothing to be ashamed of, whatever the reason for them.”

“He never told you why he was flogged?”

“No.”

The clock chimed one o’clock. Maureen ached for sleep but first she had to see to Peter.  She would rather have left the task to George but she owed it to Alex as a gesture of reconciliation.  Peter would be her penance.  She could not and would not forget the boy’s attack.  However he had been provoked.  Maureen would tolerate his presence for Alex’s sake.  She would place him in a small bedroom at the end of the hall, a room once reserved for junior members of the domestic staff.   In a few months they would make a more permanent arrangement perhaps apprenticing him to a tradesman.  Maureen found him sitting on a stool beside the kitchen stove.

When Ian went back outside to tend to the horses he was surprised to find the boy still huddled in the back of the wagon.

Peter waited. He would not be welcome in the house.  Any sudden intrusion on his part might anger them, especially the bitch.  Waiting would be better.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets.  He was drifting off to sleep when Ian shook him.

“Are you daft?” the man asked him. “Get into the house before you catch your death of cold.”

The constable led him into the kitchen.  Rebecca told him to wash his face and hands and then to drink down a hot cup of tea. He still held the cup, the tea forgotten, when Maureen told him to follow her.  “Take your shoes off.  I don’t want mud all over the house.”

The boy stood his back rigid, half-listening as the woman explained where the water closet was, and when he could expect breakfast. Tomorrow she would give him a list of duties.  She finished by telling him to undress, wash and leave his dirty clothes in the hallway.  Tomorrow he would be given some of George’s old clothes until his were cleaned. She turned and marched away leaving him alone in the room.  Peter did not want to sleep here.  He could feel them, Radek and the Leuger twins waiting for him.  He pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms around them and waited for the dawn.

George had already gone to bed.  He could do nothing more for Alex.  The only remedy now was rest.  Alex might sleep for days. His condition would remain stable at least for the immediate future. Maureen lay on her stomach an arm draped over her husband’s chest.  She thought over the events of the previous day.  How could she have been so wrong?  George’s fingers played with her hair. She knew he was lost somewhere in his own thoughts.

At dawn they might make love.  She had always enjoyed their bed play, too much perhaps. She had been afraid that God, angry at their enjoyment, might be punishing them by withholding a child.  Not even her love for George was as precious to her as the infant growing in her womb.  They would have to send Peter away.  She would not endanger her child’s life by allowing such an unstable element in her house.   Before she slept one last question occurred to her.  “George?”

               “Um?”

              “You said there were two conditions to Alex’s giving us the land.”

“Yes.”

“What was the other one?”

George turned over settling deeper into the pillow.  “Rebecca could stay on as long as she wished.”

“He didn’t ask for anything for himself?”

“No.  Go to sleep.”

She snuggled closer to him and tried to sleep.

In the morning the Campbell brothers brought Alex’s things.  They also brought Anna.  Rebecca being preoccupied with Alex, Anna offered to help in the kitchen until conditions returned to normal. Maureen could not refuse the offer.  Mary Davis being required at her home in the evenings Anna would serve to fill the gap

                Anna manned the kitchen.  Mary saw to the housekeeping.  Rebecca and Maureen settled the caring for Alex into four six-hour shifts.  Rebecca would take the evenings and the mornings.  Maureen chose the nights and afternoons.  Being younger she felt that she could better endure the night hours although she would never say that to Rebecca.

                Alex’s schedule settled Maureen went into the kitchen.  Peter, enveloped in clothes too large for him, picked at his breakfast.  He rose to his feet upon seeing her enter.  Ignoring him Maureen examined the breakfast Anna had prepared.  Satisfied, she turned to Peter.  She told him to sit and then explained that he would be helping Jacob in the field.  This, she thought, had the dual advantage of making him both useful and invisible.  For the moment she would regard him as an unpaid member of the staff.  The sooner she put him to work, the better.  “Whatever may have been our past differences, we should work together for Doctor MacTavish’s recovery.”

“Yes madam.”  Josef could see where the power in this household lay.  He would obey.  He would never argue.  He would never question. Survive.  Wait.

“You will resume your duties as my uncle’s servant when he is well.” 

Maureen considered telling him the truth.  For a small amount of money the boy might agree to leave, the best solution for everyone.  However the previous day’s events had burned her.  She adopted a more cautious approach.  She would wait for George to tell the boy.  The boy, having realized he could never belong here, would be willing to leave. 

The boy continued to stare waiting for further instructions.  Was he an idiot?  The man, who had taken him in, who had saved his life, lay ill.  The boy stood showed no more concern than would a wooden block.  She longed to slap him just to see if he would respond.   Poor Alex, she sighed, to have that thing as a son and herself for a niece.  “If you have finished your breakfast go to the woodshed and collect wood for the stove. Do you understand?”

“Yes, madam.”  Peter bowed, turned and left.

He seemed so mechanical, Maureen thought.  If he did his work well she would write him a reference and find him a place somewhere.  She would have made amends.  Honour would have been satisfied.

For the rest of the day she saw little of the boy.   He took his meals in the kitchen.  His work kept him out of her way.  Only once did she have to see him.   When Alex’s things arrived with the Campbells, Mary called Peter into the house to pick out what was his.  To ensure that the boy took only what was his, Maureen looked on as Peter picked out an extra pair of trousers, a shirt, and a pair of stockings, a darned nightshirt, a toothbrush and his copybook.  As he marched off with them, Maureen wondered what it would be like to own nothing.

Rebecca had dozed off in her chair when Maureen relieved her.   The mantel clock had not yet chimed midnight but Maureen felt she should arrive early to give the old woman a few minutes of extra sleep.  As Maureen placed her bible and knitting basket on the night table beside Alex’s bed she noticed a small dark object curled in the corner on the other side of Alex’s bed.  It was Peter. Rebecca had draped a gray blanket over him.

“He wanted to sit with Alex,” Rebecca told her.  “I didn’t have the heart to tell him to leave. He’s quiet enough.  Could he stay for the night?”

Maureen remembered when she could not sleep without her uncle being there to keep her safe.  When Alex dies she would have George and her child.  Rebecca would have her children.  Kilmarnock would have another physician.  What would Peter have?  “I’ll have a cot brought in here tomorrow,” she told Rebecca.

After an hour of knitting, boredom began to infect Maureen.  She examined some of Alex’s books.  Most of them Alex had owned for years.  As she flipped through the pages of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, her attention

drifted towards the chest. Since she was a little girl she had always wondered what her uncle had kept inside it. Her parents had never permitted her to look inside.  Taking advantage of her uncle’s illness would be inconsiderate.  God would know but it would only be a venial sin.  She told herself it would be wrong even as she wondered where Alex had put the keys.  The chest might contain clothes Alex could use. He would not mind her looking for them considering the circumstances. She found the keys where she suspected they would be, in a pocket in Alex’s coat.

Maureen opened  the chest to see a piece of canvas sheeting.  She lifted the canvas and looked beneath.   Her uncle’s thick winter coat, the collar lined with wolverine fur lay below.  Next to it were his brown moose hide mitts also lined with wolverine fur, a gift from an Algonquin trapper he had treated many years before for pneumonia.  Beneath his winter things lay a heavy black cloak he often wore in the spring and autumn rains. None of these surprised her.  Beneath the cloak was something that did: a red tunic with gold-painted buttons bearing the thistle of Scotland.

Maureen knew Alex had been in the army but she had not given it much thought.  He had never spoken of it.  No one did.  Besides, she knew what officers were like. She had seen them in Kingston, tall, elegant men, not like Alex.  Alex had only been a surgeon, not a true officer.  It was odd though, the way his things had been packed.  Everything was so tidy and well pressed. His coat was neatly folded, his winter boots wrapped in tissue paper and placed to the left side.  It spoke of a sense of order so unlike him.

Beneath the tunic she found the gifts.  The first was a pair of gloves she had presented to him on his birthday in March.  She had hoped that new clothes would cause Alex to take some pride in himself.  He had worn them once.  She had never seen them again.  He had clung to his old leather gloves he had been using since she was little.  She had assumed that he had lost the new ones or that his dislike for her had kept him from wearing them.

Next to the gloves she found a woolen scarf she had knitted for him the previous Christmas.  Under the scarf was a piece of embroidery she had sent him from Mrs. McClellands.  They were all there, the things she had given to him over the years, the new lain upon the old.  Bits of needlework, clothing and handkerchiefs carefully pressed and sorted.  Underneath the gifts, at the bottom of the chest, she found four cloth-wrapped bundles.  A very long one was placed at an angle along the back of the chest. She ran her hand along it and then unwrapped it just enough to peek

beneath the cloth.  She saw a knob of polished steel and gold-braided thread.  A sword hilt she guessed. 

A large rectangular object, with what felt like a hard smooth curved surface lurked beneath the cotton cloth.  Was this the box in which Alex had squirreled away his fabled hoard?  Maureen shook it. She heard no sound from within.  It was heavy though.  Putting it back she examined the other two bundles.  Light in weight and soft in feel, Maureen deduced that they contained papers.  She chose the larger of the two bundles.  As she untied the white cord that bound the blanket she realized that the cloth was a child’s blanket.  She had a vague memory of the blanket from a long time before.

Underneath the blanket she found envelopes, sixteen she counted, some small, some large.  On each had been written a different year, from 1833 to 1849.  The first of the envelopes, 1833, was the smallest.  She untied the string that bound the flap and looked inside.  She found a small black notebook. Maureen drew it out. She flipped through the pages to find them blank.  Why would Alex have kept a blank notebook?  Then she found the answer.  In the middle leaves of the book was a flat object protected by tissue paper.  She opened the tissue paper to find a ring of dried buttercups.  The edges of the petals crumbled as she touched them.  As she held the flowers she realized she had done something very wrong.  She had intruded upon the heart of another person’s past.  But the past was also hers.  If she could understand what the dried circlet meant . . .

“Maminka.”

The flowers dropped from Maureen’s hands. Afraid the boy had seen her prying she rose.  One glance told her Peter was asleep, murmuring words she could not understand.  As Peter’s murmuring continued she recalled advice from Mrs. McClelland and from George.  Never disturb the sleeper.   After a few minutes Peter quieted. Maureen returned to her memories.

She remembered the flowers.  They had gone on a picnic along the river, the four of them.  Her parents had gone on ahead, her mother carrying the basket, her father a blanket.  Alex and she had followed, their progress slowed by her running into the fields to collect flowers.  Alex waited for her to return.  When she did he took her hand and admired the splendid quality of her choice.  She remembered the field.  They buried her parents there the following summer.

She had made floral chains for everyone, the biggest for herself and her mother, the smallest for her father and Uncle Alex. Within a day, as children will, she had forgotten hers, as had her parents.  Alex must have kept his, concealing it from everyone.  Why?  It had been such a simple gift, a child’s gift. Why would he have kept it for so many years, giving it such care?

She was considering possible replies to her question when a sudden cry jolted her.  Peter, pressed into a corner, screamed at something only he could see.  Maureen could not understand the words but the fear was unmistakable.  She ran over to him. In a stern whisper she commanded Peter to stop. 

When she had bad dreams as a little girl Alex had held her until she settled to sleep in his arms.  Peter would not settle.   He twisted away thrashing at her with his arms and legs.  His screaming continued.  Tired of waiting Maureen slapped him.  He collapsed.  His screams dissolved into whimpering and then into sleep.  As she held him Maureen noticed the scar on his left wrist.

The bedroom door opened.  George and Anna looked in to find Maureen, her hair disheveled, huddled in the corner with Peter.  She looked back at them with a lost stare, appealing in silence for an explanation of what was happening to her once so rational life.

 “Dementia is largely unexplored,” George told her over breakfast.  “Many still think it is caused by evil spirits, others by bad blood.  I’m more inclined to look upon it as having a physical cause and therefore subject to a physical cure.  It might have been caused by a blow to the head, an infection of the blood, or a disturbance of the nervous system.”

Maureen prodded her scrambled eggs.  She thought of the mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. “What I want to know, George, is how much of a danger is he?”

“That’s hard to say.  Most children are subject to bad dreams.  His concern for Alex might have triggered it. It may go away if Alex improves.  Keeping him in Alex’s room helps. Gives him more of a sense of  . . .”

“If Alex doesn’t improve, what then?”

“We can continue to observe him.  He may settle.”

“If he loses Alex, do you believe he will?”

George thought of the scar.  Alex had passed it off as the probable result of an accident. George had been unconvinced.  Coupled with the screams, it spoke of a child dangerous to himself even if to no one else.  “No.”  He added.  “We do have a responsibility towards him, Maureen.  Whatever we think of Alex’s actions, Alex did make him his son.  We can’t change that.  We will arrange something for him, out of respect for Alex.”

Maureen looked down at her eggs.  “Yes.”  Not here she told herself. Not here.

During the day Peter seemed unaware of what he had dreamed.  Instead he went about his chores without complaint and without interest.  Maureen withdrew each time she sighted him. She thought of forbidding his sleeping in Alex’s room but George warmed that it might only worsen his behaviour. Best put up with it he told her.

She resumed her study of the envelopes that night beginning in 1834.  In it she found a few childish scrawls, pictures of stick people and animals, and her first attempt at forming letters.  The envelope marked 1835 contained her first letter to her uncle.  Misspelled and ungrammatical it had discussed her day at the village school, the friends she had made and how she hoped he would like the letter.

The envelopes became bulkier with the years.  The next year brought letters asking for gifts and favours.   Then came letters from Mrs. McClelland’s, one a week, each concerned with those things now forgotten that seemed so important at the time, new dresses, someone’s birthday party, schoolwork, new friends and teachers.  In each letter one question remained constant.  When would Uncle Alex come to visit her?

She stopped reading the individual letters.  Instead she read snatches, sentences and paragraphs, each fragment bringing back a memory.  She went from envelope to envelope.  Their contents spilled out onto the floor.  Papers once so carefully separated now mixed with one another. She journeyed through the letters reading the words of three different people;  first the little girl; then the young student, shy, lonely, unsure of herself: finally the serious-minded teacher, schooled in the social proprieties, grown less and less tolerant of an old man who no longer belonged to her world.

 As she grew older the letters grew more formal and less honest. Events she felt her uncle would not be interested in she screened out until the letters had become dull repetitious exercises maintained not out of affection but out of duty.  She read angry letters, letters scolding him telling him of her disappointment with him because he would not come to see her.  Other letters told him she would not be returning for the holidays. Her work in Kingston was too important. Weak lies told to avoid admitting that it was George and her family she wished to see not him.  The hurt, the frustration, the loneliness had all been in her letters.  He had kept them all and yet in those same years not once had he come to see her.

She had discarded the letters he had sent to her.  Maureen wondered how truthful those letters had been.  How much had he told about himself?  Very little from what she could remember.  He had mentioned nothing about the fate of Bridget Foley or about the giving away of his land.  Like her he had confined his letters to things he had assumed she would be interested in.

She had reached the last envelope, 1849. In it she discussed the plans for her wedding.  She had avoided bringing George to Kilmarnock.  Maureen had feared his possible reaction to her uncle and Rebecca.  She looked at the invitation written in her clear firm lettering.  How could she not invite him?  They expected it of her.  The McKays assumed he would want to give the bride away.  As she had written the letter begging him to attend, she had hoped he would decline.  He had.  She had never forgiven him for it.

As she read the last letter her acceptance of his invitation to her and George to visit Kilmarnock the boy’s murmuring resumed.  His cries followed the pattern of the previous night.  Again she recognized the fear underlying the words.   She held him trying to ignore the blows, keeping his arms away from her abdomen until he settled of his own accord. When he was still she tucked the blankets back around him. Exhausted she fell into her chair and dozed off.  Once again muttering woke her but it did not come from the boy.  This time it came from Alex.

***

“You’ve done enough,” Jean whispered. “Stay here now.”

“Soon.  Soon,” he told her. “There’s something left to do.”

“You always have things left to do, Alex. Leave them to others.”

“I can’t.  Not this.”

He reached out to touch her face, to find it slipping away from him again to be replaced by another. “Maureen?”

Her soft tapering fingers pushed his hand back down onto the blankets.  “Lie still. Rest.”

What was he doing here? This was the one place he did not want to be.  “Maureen . ..”

“You’re home, Alex.  You’ve had a fever.  Rest.”

She poured him a glass of water and supported him as he sipped at it.

“How long?” he asked.

“Two days.”

Alex tried to push life into his sluggish mind.  What could Paisley have done in two days time?  “The boy?  Peter?”

“He’s sleeping, to your left.”

Alex turned his head to see Peter asleep in the next bed.

 “He won’t sleep anywhere else,” said Maureen.

Dropping back against the pillow he whispered to Maureen.  “Aye.  He’s a good lad . . . everything considered.  He didn’t mean to hurt you Maureen.  He never . .”

“I know.”

Feeble fingers clutched her hand.   “If anything happens . . . he’s my son. Please, remember.”

“I know.”  Alex was still thinking she would have Peter dragged off to prison. Whatever she decided it would not be that.  “Sleep.”

Long after he had sunk back into sleep she remained holding his hand, as if he were a frightened child and she his protector.  After Rebecca relieved her, she went to her bedroom.  Undressing she lay down beside her husband. She placed a hand upon his chest and told him about the letters.  “He kept them all.  I don’t understand. Why would he keep the letters but not me?  It makes no sense.”

“It did to him.  There’s something else you should see.  I’ll fetch it for you.”

He brought a packet wrapped in brown paper. He sat on the bed and opened it, handling it with great care.  A stiff heavy piece of parchment, it bore the Royal coat of arms at the top, a red seal at the bottom.  He spread it out on the bed. 

Maureen tried to read the thick black lettering.  “Is this the land grant you were speaking of?”

“Yes.  A crown patent issued to Alex in 1816 the year before James and he came to Canada.  It grants to him and to his heirs, in fee simple, eighteen thousand acres of unoccupied land anywhere in the colony of Upper Canada.”

“Why eighteen thousand?”

“I don’t know.  Officers were entitled to twelve hundred acres.  Why the government chose to be so generous to Alex is something I’ve never understood.  Strachan knows, I think, but he’s never told me.”

                “Alex never told anyone?”

“I would imagine your father would have known. Apparently neither he nor Alex ever told anyone.”               “I wonder what else he never told us. He has spent most of his life keeping things hidden, things he had no reason to hide, this land grant for instance.  Why not admit to it?  Was he ashamed of owning the land?  Why did they give it to him?  He wasn’t wealthy or a member of the gentry.”

“Something he did during the war I suppose.”

Maureen recalled the stripes on Alex’s back.  What could he have done to warrant such punishment?

“Why don’t you ask him, Maureen?  Perhaps it’s time.”

“Yes.”

She had much to ask him, but would she have the courage?  First she would have to beg his forgiveness.  Tomorrow Alex would be stronger.  She remembered a remark made by Rebecca about James never wanting to give up his land.  Rebecca had never known about the true ownership of the land but James must have.   He and Alex must have worked together, to do what?  To condemn Alex to obsccurity?

The more she worked at the puzzle, the more complicated it became.  In seeking the answer to one question she had uncovered other questions, each leading off to another unexplored part of her past.  Alex had many of the answers.  Others she would find with people who had shared his life.  Others lay within her.  She did not know what she would find but she did know what she was seeking, the truth about herself and her family.   Alex could not deny her that, not any longer.

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Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex : Chapter Seventeen

         Flight

          Alex listened to the branches shivering in the growing wind. He could smell the rain coming in from the north.  He considered returning to his room to pack a few things but decided against it. If they left now they would be several miles along the road before the rain came. They could always seek shelter at a farmhouse until it passed. If they rode all night they would be at Alistair’s by morning. Peter could find a refuge there, at least for a while. Alex could always send for his things. In leaving now they could slip past Paisley. Once he heard of the attack against Maureen, Paisley would notify Radek. Without the McKays the only thing between Peter and Radek would be a crumbling old man.

                “I am hungry.”

                Alex pulled his thoughts towards the child.

                “Please, doctor. I am hungry. When can we eat?”

                Alex closed his eyes. He jerked the boy’s arms away from around his waist. “Get down.”

                “Why?” Peter sulked.

                “Just do it.”

                Peter slid down to the ground expecting Alex to dismount. Instead he rode away from him farther     down the road. “Doctor?”

Alex pulled back on the reins. He looked back at the boy standing beside the road. “You want food, lad? I have none.  Go back there and ask the woman you attacked for it.  She could have fed you. She could have given you a home.”

                “I don’t like her.”

  “You don’t like her? You have so many friends you can choose the ones you want?”

                Peter knew that Alex was angry.  He should try to explain. “She hit you.”

  “That has nothing to do with you.”

                 As he looked down at the ground Peter thought of another defense. He kicked at the ground. “I      don’t like what she said about you and about me.” He remembered Radek and the Leuger twins. “I am not            your animal.”

Alex recalled the tone of Radek’s voice when speaking of the boy. He wondered what Radek would have called him. “Peter, you can’t go attacking everyone who calls you a name. She could have given you everything you needed.  Don’t you understand?

Peter continued to sulk. “We don’t need her. Why do we need her?”

“Oh Jesus, don’t be so stupid.”

Alex felt the pattering of raindrops on his head and shoulders. As he looked up the sky he told himself he had done everything wrong this day. He rode back to where the boy stood. “We’ll ride to Perth. I have to see a friend. We’ll eat when we get there.”

They turned onto the North Mountain road. It would lead them along the upper reach of the Cameron and then, southeast in a long loop turning north to run into Perth. Alex calculated that in good weather they would be in Perth in four or five hours.  Strachan’s estate on the banks of the Tay was another thirty minutes out of the settlement

Their bad luck continued. The rain thickened to a steady downpour transforming the dust of the road into a thick muck that slowed Bess’s speed to a walk.  Alex’s visibility dwindled to the back of Bess’s head. The farmsteads lay deep in the bush at the end of trails worse than the one Alex and Peter were on.  Better to remain on the main road.

  Allowing Bess to keep her own pace Alex slipped his fingers off the reins into the shelter of his coat pockets.  He kept his head down trying to keep his thoughts away from the rain and the cold weight of his coat. He could feel the boy leaning against his back, his shoulders shaking from the cold. If they did not find shelter soon they would be both down with pneumonia. As he thought of where shelter might be found the cramps returned.

                The doctor dropped down into the mud, a hand pressed against his abdomen.

                “Doctor?”

                “Stay there,” Alex croaked, stumbling off into the trees.

                Peter and Bess waited as the rain continued to pour. When Alex returned he did not remount.           Instead, taking the reins he guided the horse along the road. They had slogged on a few hundred feet when   Alex stumbled and toppled over into the mud. Peter sprang down and ran over to him, slipping and sliding         in the muck. He helped push Alex back up onto his feet.

                “There’s an old cabin, not far,” Alex stammered.

                Peter took the reins. Alex leaned on him as they stumbled on. He kept telling Alex to mount the         horse. Alex nodded but did not try to do so. After they had made another mile they reached the ruins of an            old cabin. It offered little more than four broken walls and a collapsed roof but it would get them out of the              rain. Peter dropped Alex just inside the cabin door. He tied Bess’s reins to the trunk of a birch tree and sloshed back to the cabin. He lugged Alex to the corner furthest from the door. There they huddled    together. With his numbed hands Alex wrapped his great coat around them both. Through chattering             teeth he told Peter that they would have to find help once the rain stopped.

               “A man named Thompson has a farm a couple of miles up the road. We can rest at his place. Then   we’ll go on. Sleep now.”

                “Yes.” Peter stared down at the mud floor. He had caused all of this.

                Alex placed a withered hand upon his shoulder. “This isn’t your fault, Peter. None of this is. We’ll   rest. Later we’ll go on together. Do you understand?”   

                “Yes. “ He did not understand. Why would Alex still want him? Yet Alex did. Peter would do    what he could to help.  Alex fell into a deep sleep. Peter curled up next to the old man and tried to warm   him with his body.

                                                                                ***

  Maureen had heard that on old maps geographers had filled blank spaces with “here be dragons.”   As she climbed the stairs to her uncle’s room she wondered how many dragons lurked behind his door. She looked down at the wagon where George sat.  He had refused to accompany her. This was something she had to do alone. Maureen would rather die a thousand deaths than continue climbing but continue she did. With each step she wondered what she would say when Alex opened the door.  Suppose, she shuddered, that thing opened the door? She rapped on the door. She waited. The rising wind buffeted her blue umbrella. She knocked again. At last, frustrated, she tried the doorknob to find the door locked. Maureen called down to George. “No one’s here.”

                George looked up. Was Maureen stalling? He doubted it. Whatever her faults, lying was not one     of them. “Try it again.”

                 She did so. Once again she met with silence.

                Anna having noticed the wagon and the voices came out. Her coat collar pulled up she asked           George if he were looking for Alex.

                 “Have you seen him?” asked George.

                “Not since he and the boy left for the hill.  I thought he was staying for supper there?”

                “A change of plans,” George muttered. “Are you certain he hasn’t returned?”

“I would have heard him if he had. He might have stopped off at the Royal Arms or at the Campbells.”

                George nodded. “It’s possible.  We’re much obliged Miss Cleary. Would you mind, with the             weather and all if Mrs. McKay took shelter with you while I look for him?”

  Anna would have preferred sheltering an angry bear. “No. Of course not. I’ll put some tea on.”  

                 George returned an hour later with Ian Campbell having asked for Alex up and down the length of  Queen Street. No one had seen Alex since he had ridden out of Kilmarnock that morning.  Several people including Mister Paisley had offered to look for him.  “We’ll check his room,” George told Ian. “If he’s not there he’s probably gone off to Perth. He was thinking of going there tomorrow.”

                “He wouldn’t be going in this weather,” said Ian.

  Instead of answering George led the way up the stairs. The doctor turned the lock with a spare key provided by Anna. He entered followed by Campbell, Anna and Maureen.

  The room was so tiny thought Maureen, smaller than her bedroom. The other thing she noticed about the room was age. Worn out furniture, faded old books, shabby patched clothing. Then she spotted something new, a child’s copybook. It lay face down on Alex’s desk. She turned it over to see two different examples of handwriting, an old man’s shaky scrawl and a child’s.  Alex had been teaching the boy to improve his handwriting.

                She recognised the passage, the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet.

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings

    Odd, Maureen thought. A great landowner would choose to bury himself in such shabbiness just to protect the memory of a brother.  None of it made any sense. Too many pieces were missing. George, Ian, Rebecca, Judge Stranchan and she held different fragments of Alex’s life. If she could bring them together perhaps then she could understand.

                “You think he’s gone to Perth?” Ian asked George.

                “I can’t think of anywhere else he could have gone.”

                 “Surely he must have known it was going to rain,” said Ian.  “I don’t see why he couldn’t have       waited until morning.”

                Neither George nor Maureen felt inclined to explain Alex’s sudden leaving of Kilmarnock.

                “He’ll be along the road then,” said Anna.

                “Alex will find shelter somewhere,” said Ian.

  “He’s not a well man Ian,” said George. “If anything happens to him along the way he may not have the strength to reach shelter. We have to look for him. He can’t be travelling very fast. We can probably overtake him.”

                George nodded and turned to Maureen. “You’ll stay with Anna. We shouldn’t be long.”

                “No.”

                “Maureen.” Not wanting to argue in front of the others, he and Maureen stepped to one side.           Anna and Ian moved away to give the impression of not wishing to hear.

                “You have our child to think of,” George told Maureen.

                “I sent Alex away,” she whispered. “I have to help bring him back. Please.”

                George could not deny the pleading in his wife’s eyes. “Very well.”

                Within a half-hour they had set out on the road to Perth, the McKays in the wagon, following Ian on horseback. The mud sucked at the wheels of the wagon begrudging every inch. The need to stop at every farm also slowed them, each stop requiring a considerable detour. Within an hour of setting out they were rain-soaked and mud-splattered. The wagon wheels, sinking deeper into the mud, became stuck, forcing George and Ian to push it free. Six miles out of Kilmarnock they bogged down a second time. George, concerned for his wife, suggested stopping at a farmhouse for the night or returning to Kilmarnock to organise a larger search.

                Maureen shook her head. “You go back if you like.”

                “Maureen…”

                Ignoring her husband she clambered down onto the road. She trudged through the mud, holding the hem of her dress up.  Seizing the bridles she tugged at the horses, cursing and pleading.  The horses lurched forward. As Maureen splashed back towards the wagon George wondered where she had learned such unladylike ways. MacTavish blood he thought.

 Plopping down into her seat she picked up her umbrella although there seemed little point to it now. “If you and Campbell and the horses want to quit, fine. Do that. Alex is out there somewhere. I made one mistake today. I am not making another.”

                “You’ve made your point Maureen. We’ll complete this together.”

The rain stopped just after nine o’clock. By then the searchers were eight miles out of Kilmarnock. Ian, riding ahead spotted Bess tied to a large birch. He rode back to notify the McKays.

“There’s an old trapper’s cabin a few yards back from the road. Hasn’t been used in years. If they’re here that’s where you’ll find them.”

The three rode up to where Bess had been tied. They dismounted. Ian lit a small bull’s eye lantern. He plunged into the bush followed by the McKays.  

                                                                                ***

    Stirred by the silence that followed the rain, Peter wakened. He felt the warmth of Alex’s body. Although grateful for it he noticed that the old man felt too warm.  He shook with fever. Peter wished that he knew what to do. He was as helpless now as when the typhus had attacked his family. If he had dry wood and flint he could start a fire. He had neither. If he were not such a coward he would go for help. It would be light in a few hours. He would go then.

As he sat against the moldering wall he noticed a yellow beam bobbing in the dark outside the entrance to the cabin.  He stood and squinted, straining for a better look. Someone was coming. Alex would want to know. He shook him, whispering his name.  Alex would not waken. Not knowing if the person coming would hurt or help Peter assumed the worst. He groped for a weapon and found a stick of wood as thick as his wrist. Holding it up he placed himself between the light and Alex.

Campbell stumbled through the opening banging his head on the lintel. Cursing he rubbed his forehead as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cabin. Detecting a movement he swung his lantern towards it. The beam picked out the boy standing, a stick in his hands. Behind him he could make out Alex lying in a corner.

                “Alex?”

                Peter moved between Ian and Alex.

  “Out of the way boy,” Ian growled. He had no time for the boy’s foolishness. He had to get to Alex.

  Was the man an enemy or a friend? Peter struggled to decide. Alex had said that the man was a friend. He began to step aside. Then he saw Doctor McKay and behind him, her. That decided it. He planted himself between Ian and Alex.

                Ian, about to brush the boy aside, paused. The doctor’s right hand on his shoulder held him back.

                “Peter,” said George, “please, let us help Alex.”

                “You want to hurt him.”

                “We want to bring him home.  I’m a doctor. I can help him.”

                “No.” The man was a liar. Peter pointed the stick at Maureen. “You don’t want him. Leave him          alone. I’ll take care of him. Go away.”

                “How,” George asked.  “How are you going to take care of him, Peter?”

                Peter remembered how he had tried to care for Maminka and Janos, how he had failed.

George sensed the boy’s hesitation. “Do you want him to die, Peter? You have to let him go, lad.”

Peter knew that the man was a liar but what he had said was true. Alex was ill and Peter did not know how to care for him. Did he want another person to die?  It was over. He dropped the stick and slipped back into the darkest corner of the cabin.

                Ian stepped forward. He lifted the unconscious man. Cradling him in his arms, he carried him  outside. The McKays followed him.

              Peter stayed where he was. They did not want him. Then, stirred by curiosity and by the desire to take one last look at a man whom he had pretended was his father, he crept toward the doorway.  Campbell was tying Bess to the back of the wagon. The doctor and he had placed Alex in the wagon.  Peter could see the bitch holding Alex’s head in her lap. She would hurt Alex again but Peter could do nothing. He walked towards the trees. He would keep walking until morning. Tomorrow he would decide what to do.  Peter had reached the edge of the clearing when Doctor McKay called to him.

                “Peter?”

                He kept walking. The doctor hated him. How could he not? He had brought the constable to have him arrested for attacking his wife. That was only fair.

                George, seeing the boy disappearing into the dark, called out again. “Don’t you want to help us take care of Alex?”

                Peter told himself to run. What good had he ever brought to Alex or to anyone? He had brought nothing but trouble and pain. He looked toward the trees.  A few more steps and he would be gone from them. They would never find him.

                “Hurry up lad. We haven’t got all night.”

         Peter dashed up to the wagon and clambered onto the back. He found a spot to sit beside Alex’s feet, as far   from her as he could put himself.

                                                                                ***

         Maureen looked at the rider.  She thought it strange to see him on the road at this late time in such weather. He sat at the turnoff to Kilmarnock Hill. Caught in the rain he must have taken shelter postponing his journey. The feeble light of a cigar gave a dot of illumination to his face.  She remembered having seen the man in church.  Paisley, his name was. He was a writer. Ellen Mackenzie had suggested that the ladies of the Kilmarnock Cultural Society should invite him for one of their evenings. The man swept off his hat as they passed. This polite act angered her. Did he think that Alex was dead?     

Rebecca had waited for them in the kitchen. At the sound of the horses she came out holding a lamp to guide them into the house. As George and Ian carried Alex in Maureen could feel the hurt in Rebecca’s eyes. Unable to look her in the face she whispered, “I brought him home, Rebecca.”

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Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex : Chapter Sixteen

             Lies and Truths

Maureen regretted the slap. Her father would not have approved of what she had done.  Yet, Alex had left her with no other choice.  She had hoped that by showing him the truth of his situation he would have admitted his errors. Instead he clung to his delusions, blinded by the soul-devouring darkness of his lies. She may have been a bit too vehement but his stubborn refusal to admit what was obvious to all had provoked her.  That little monster glaring at her had made her angrier than she should have been. However she had accomplished one thing. Maureen had shown that thing for what he was. As she heard George enter she concentrated on the portrait of her father. She would need his strength to help find her way through this.

She turned to George. “You will go to Constable Campbell tonight and have charges brought against . . . that thing.  He could have killed our child. A few months in prison may improve his behaviour.”

“You would do that?” George asked.  He recalled a girl in a white dress whom he had first met at a ball in Kingston.  She had not wanted to pry herself out of the safety of her corner.  Even then there had been a certain emotional rigidity to her nature. It had softened as acquaintanceship evolved into friendship. He had admired her intelligence and her passion for honesty. On their wedding night he had discovered deep within her another passion that had moulded with his own.  Then he had brought her here. The village had acted as an abrasive, rubbing away at her, revealing her loneliness, bitterness and anger, the target of which had become her uncle. The shy girl in white, who had once trembled at the thought of being asked to dance, was condemning a child to prison.

“Why shouldn’t I?  Someone has to protect this family.”

“That’s not necessary. He’s leaving Kilmarnock tomorrow with Alex.”

“Then go and see Campbell now.”

George shook his head. “No, Maureen, I forbid it.”

Maureen bridled. “Forbid? You forbid it?  That monster could have killed your child.”

“He didn’t know you were with child. Besides, you attacked Alex.”

“You dare justify what he did?”

“I’m not justifying it. It was wrong but he was trying to defend Alex. I will not have him imprisoned for that. You attacked a person that he cares for, perhaps the only person.”

“I did not attack Alex.”

“What were you doing then?”

“If you have an erring child, it is your duty to correct him.”

“Alex is not a child.”

“He acts like one; thoughtless, selfish., deceitful. Don’t tell me he’s never lied to you.”

“Yes, he has. So what?”

“So what? Lying is a sin.”

“Maureen, Alex came to us for help. You humiliated him and you struck him. What do you call that?”

“Showing him the truth. Do you think that agreeing with his delusions is helping him? That so-called son of his is poisoning him, bleeding him for whatever he can get out of him. We have to stop it.”

“You’re just the one to stop it, aren’t you, Maureen?”

“If no one else will; yes.”

“That child may be the one thing keeping Alex alive.”  George checked himself.

“Nonsense.’ She turned to face him. “I could have handled this better George. I know that.” She drew herself up to her full height, James MacTavish looming above her. “Can’t you see how it makes me feel to have that man come here and shame my father’s house, my father’s memory?”

George took a deep breath. “It’s not just your father’s house, Maureen. It was Alex’s as well.”

“My father built it. He owned it. Alex forgets that.”

 “Your father may have built this house. He never owned it.”

If someone had come up to Maureen and had told her that God was an Irishman it would not have been as great a shock to her.  “Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone knows . . .”

“I don’t care what everyone knows, Maureen. James’s name is not on the original title deed to this land.”

“Everyone knows… ”

“Everyone knows because Alex told them. Your father never owned a square inch of this land.”

Maureen could see where George had been duped by Alex’s lies.  “Alex just wants to make himself feel more important so he attacks my father’s memory.”

“So why didn’t he tell this to the community. Why didn’t he tell you?”

                “No one would believe him. Everyone knew my father too well. The same is true about the land.”

                “Tell me Maureen, what do you know of your father, apart from what Alex has told you?”

                “I….” Of course she knew her father. James MacTavish formed the basis of her life.  Yet as she thought of him, her memories seemed distant and obscured with time. She could still see a large powerful man dominating those around him. his voice pealing  in laughter or shaking with anger, a hard-working man too busy to spend much time with a little girl, brushing her away when she came running up to him.

                “You know nothing,” said George, “except what Alex wanted you to know.”

                “That’s not true. I remember him.”

                “The memories of a six-year-old; to a six-year-old their father is the most important person in the world. All Alex did was to keep that memory from changing.”

                “But if father didn’t own the land?”

                “Alex did. All of it, granted to him by the British government. James managed it.”

                Every lie, if examined closely, reveals a broken seam. Pull at this and the lie unravels. As she thought of Alex Maureen found a broken seam. “Why would the government give that ridiculous, little man  eighteen thousand acres?”

                George looked at her for a moment and then turned away. “I have seen the land deed, Maureen. It is dated back to 1816. One is on file in Perth. The other is with me. Judge Strachan has told me that they are authentic crown patents. As to why they gave it to him, I don’t know.”

                Maureen paced the floor in front of the fireplace. “How long have you known this?”

                “Since we came to Kilmarnock. Alex made me swear upon my honour not to tell you.”

                Maureen’s temper flared. “Your honour?  What happened to your precious honour towards me? On the day that you proposed you swore that you would be honest with me, always.  Wasn’t that more important than your promise to Alex?” 

                “No. It wasn’t.”

                Stunned Maureen could think of only one word. “Why?”

                “I would have thought that was obvious. Alex is dying.”

Maureen‘s anger dropped away. “Dying,” she echoed.

“He kept promising me that he would tell you. Just another lie I suppose. He must have been planning to slip away before anyone else knew.”

Maureen found her voice. “Knew what?”

“Alex has cancer of the stomach.”

Maureen closed her eyes seeing herself striking Alex.  “All those times I asked you about his health.”

“You have to understand Maureen. Alex was desperate to have someone take over his practice. He had sent out letters but no one wanted to come. There’s no money to be made here, at least not enough to make up for the distances to be covered.  My marriage to you had given him hope. So he asked us to come here. When we did, he told me. He begged me to take the practice. He offered everything he had, the land; the house, everything. I couldn’t deny him. ”

“But you could have told me.”

“Alex asked for only two things in exchange. The first was not to tell you.”

Maureen shook her head. “I don’t believe any of this.” She searched for a means of disproving the lie, another broken seam. “Why would he have taken that boy in? That is not the act of a dying man.”

George’s response was a cold stare. Then he spoke weighing each word. “In thirty years Alex has not turned away anyone in need of help. Do you think that his dying could change that? How could he not take that child in?”

“But Campbell would not have brought him…”

“Campbell doesn’t know. Even Peter doesn’t know.”

“But you can’t hide something like that?”

“Can’t you? It’s not so difficult if you keep people away or if people don’t care enough to look. That silly argument with you was the excuse Alex wanted to move away from here. He had been planning to leave before either you or Rebecca could realise how ill he was. That’s why his visits have been so infrequent and so brief. The whiskey that he drinks, that’s largely for show. He would rather have you think him a drunk than know that he is dying. Until that boy came into his life the one thing that mattered to him was to keep you from being hurt. For that he impoverished himself. For that he gave away his home, his land, his pride. But of course he never loved you, did he? The hell he’s been going through is just another lie, isn’t it Maureen?”

“How ill is he?”

“The tumour, as it grows, eats away at more of the stomach lining, making it more difficult for him to digest. If the cancer doesn’t kill him, slow starvation will.”

“Isn’t there any…hope?”

“Hope?” George shrugged. “He has a few weeks perhaps. When the end comes it will come with almost continuous rectal bleeding and vomiting. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain. It’s not genteel, Maureen. It’s just very real. The cancer was in remission during the winter. Sometimes it can be like that, for months, even years.  But soon it will begin to grow again, spreading at an accelerated rate.  It began growing again in May. Then it stopped. Why, I don’t know. I do know that when it resumes that will be the end.”

“But there must be some treatment.”

” I keep him supplied with opium. Every night I pray that he dies soon.”

“But you’re not a specialist. There are other doctors.”

George placed his hands upon her shoulders. “Maureen. No one can help him. Alex knows that. “

She lowered her head and pressed herself against George longing for the comfort of his arms. George dropped his arms away and left the room. She followed. He stood on the front porch looking down at the lights of Kilmarnock at the road down which Alex had disappeared.

“Do you know what he told me when I took over his practice?” George smiled, as one will do when trying to conceal the eating of something disagreeable. “Kilmarnock would have a gentleman as a doctor, an actual gentleman. Every time I met one of his former patients I would hear the same thing. Kilmarnock has someone who looks the way a doctor should look. I even heard that from my wife. Is that what you think of him? Is that what he thinks of himself? He was just someone who would do until someone better came along. That old man shows more courage in any hour of the day than I have in my entire life but no one sees it. I’m the gentleman. He’s not.”

“Alex didn’t lose the land. He gave it away. The farms, this town, the churches he never goes to, are all on what was once his land. Every person in this township, in one way or another, is here because of that old man. What does he have? A few books, some old clothes; worn out bits of furniture and a horse. He lives alone in a shabby little room waiting to die. In the midst of that pain and poverty he takes in a child. He works himself to exhaustion fighting for that boy’s life. During the first days of tending for him he would get up before daybreak. No matter how bad the pain, no matter the weather; he would haul himself down those damn steps, bring up water, heat it, cook the child’s meals and clean him. Go for days without rest.” He turned to face Maureen.  “None of that matters. Does it? He’s never cared for anyone, has he?”

“George, please…”

“That selfish, ridiculous little man gave you eighteen hundred acres so that you could keep intact the memory of a man who’s been dead for sixteen years. The only time he asked you for help, you slapped him and drove him away. Now you will go to him and you will beg him for forgiveness. I don’t care if you do it on your knees in front of this damn town. If you decide Maureen that you cannot do that, well I hope that you know how to drive the horses because I won’t be returning with you.”

  He left her there alone in the dark with her thoughts. The sound or raindrops pattering against the porch caused her to look up. She would need a coat she told herself.  Rebecca would have to get Alex’s room ready. They would need one for…Although it turned her stomach to admit it she knew that she would have to agree to accept Peter. She would swallow his presence as part of her punishment.

She did not find Rebecca in the kitchen. The tea things sat unwashed on the kitchen table. A meticulous housekeeper Rebecca would not usually have left them in such a state. Mary Davis stood in front of the sink peeling beets. Maureen asked her where Rebecca had gone.  

“Up in her room ma’am.”

Maureen tapped at Rebecca’s door. Hearing no response she opened it to see Rebecca packing clothes in a brown valise. She was trying to decide which one of two identical brown dresses she should bring. Choosing the newer she folded it and placed it in the bag.  She looked up at Maureen. “If its supper you’re asking about I’ve turned that over to Mary. I’m going to be staying with Anna. I’d appreciate Doctor McKay giving me a ride but if he can’t I suppose that I can walk.”

“You’re leaving as well?”

“As well?”

One did not discuss private matters with servants. Yet now it seemed so irrelevant. “George says that if I don’t apologise to Alex he won’t be living here anymore.”

 “Did he?  Good for him. I always knew there was a man there somewhere beneath the fancy clothes.” She picked up an ivory comb and brush from the top of her dresser, both gifts from Alex many years before.

“You don’t like us very much, do you Rebecca?” Not a question to ask a servant but Maureen felt as if she were stepping into an area in which her rules had never applied.

“I have little love for the gentry, in the old country and in this. I always liked your mother though and Alex. But then, Alex isn’t proper gentry, is he?”

“Rebecca, please…”

“By rights I should be giving you fair notice but I just don’t have the heart to stay here anymore. Anna can use some help in the shop. Mary is a fine worker and a Protestant. What more could you want?”

“You’re leaving because of Alex?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll make it up to him. I swear it. George and I will bring him back.”

“So everything will be as it was before?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want it the way it was before. Neither does Alex. Besides you’ve made it clear enough that you want me out of here.”

“Not this way.”

“You don’t want me on your conscience?”

“Rebecca, this is your home. At least wait until we talk to Alex.”

“Wait for what? This isn’t my home anymore. It was never Alex’s.”

“What do you mean?”

“Alex lived here for twenty years but it was never his home.”

“I tried to make it a good home for him, the way it was….”

“When your parents were alive?”

“Yes.”

“Maureen, if you knew Alex at all….”

“I don’t know him.” Maureen began to sob, her frustration seeping through her composure. “How could I? He keeps driving me away from him. He hates me and I don’t know why.” She fell down onto Rebecca’s bed too upset to speak.

“You expect me to be feeling sorry for you” Rebecca asked.

Maureen shook her head.

“You MacTavishes are all fools.  You are born fools and you grow up learning how to become bigger fools.” Try as she might Rebecca was not able to stop the anger from draining out of her voice. “You’re not entirely to blame. If Alex had ever stopped being so stone-headed things might have been different.”  She sat down beside Maureen. “Alex loves you more than anything else in this world. He would die for you. He just doesn’t know how to live for you.”

“If he loved me why did he never come to visit me in Kingston?. He wouldn’t even come to my wedding. Is that caring for me?  You know him better than anyone else. You must know why.”

“That is something that you’ll have to ask him. He may choose to answer. He may not. I will not answer for him. Some things I do know but as for knowing Alex. No one knows him. I don’t even think he knows himself.”

“Please Rebecca.”

Rebecca sighed. She wished that Maureen had asked eleven months before. “Alex has a fierce pride, but it’s quiet. Not like some to be measured by the noise they make. He will never give up being what he is, not for you, nor for me nor for anyone. He’ll give you his last morsel of bread but not that.”

“Then he’ll never forgive me.”

“He forgave you the moment you struck him. He could never stay angry with you but he won’t stay where he feels he doesn’t belong. If the price of belonging is giving up what he is, he’ll just stay away. I’ve known him for twenty-six years. In all that time I have never known him to raise a hand against man, woman or child. Striking someone just to discipline him, that is something that he will not do.” She looked at Maureen with a look so piercing that Maureen could feel herself wilting. “That is why I can not excuse what you did. If that’s what they taught you at that fancy school then Alex wasted his money.”

“His money. I thought it was my father’s.”

Rebecca shrugged.  “James. Alex’s. It was all the same. But it weren’t just the school.  We all assume that hurting someone is a natural part of life. My Padraic and I we were married for twenty-two years. Those were good years. I regret none of them. Yet it still hurts me, even now to think of times when he would strike me and I would do the same to him. We would even joke about it. Why not? Everyone does. Men kill each other and get medals for it. Husbands beat their wives. Parents beat their children. The scriptures tell us that God approves. The priests urge it from the pulpit. In all my years I have met only three men who do not believe it; Alex, Father Byrne and your George. Alex was the first.”

“Padraic and I were the first Irish in the district. The army had given him a land grant of a hundred acres for twenty years service. It weren’t much; just rock and pine but it was ours. To help raise money to see us over the winter Padraic went to cutting timber for your father. February of twenty-eight Padraic got his left leg caught under a falling tree. It fractured the leg and left him lame. We had five children. Who wanted to hire a crippled Irishman? Alex talked to James. James agreed to take Padraic on as handyman, myself as housekeeper to help your mother.”

“In thirty-four the cholera came. I lost Padraic, and  then Sean and Mary Francis all in two days. The other children were ill. I thought that I was going to lose them all.  If it hadn’t been for your mother and Alex I don’t know what I would have done.”

“He had Enid Tull come in. Your mother and she managed the house until the children were well. Alex and James took care of the burying. The spot where they buried Padraic and my two little ones James gave to the church so that they could be buried on consecrated ground, the only time James ever gave away land. A week later your father and mother took ill. They died within three days of each other, James first and then Jean.”

 “Yes, Alex failed to stop the cholera. Every doctor failed. No one knew what caused it.  Some said that it was the water, some the air, some that God was punishing us. Alex claimed that the fault lay with the cesspits fouling the water.  All we knew for certain was that the dying wouldn’t stop.”

“I remember Alex coming home in the middle of the night. The first thing he always did was to look in on you. Then he would go down to the kitchen where I would be keeping his supper.  Often I would find him there asleep in his chair. I don’t think he slept in a bed or ate a full meal for those three months. Usually he would be away before dawn.”

 Maureen remembered her uncle coming into her room to keep away the shadows from her so that she could sleep. Of his life she had never given any thought. It had all been so long ago.

“The heat lingered on into September and with it the cholera and the dying. Little Deidre Collum was the last to die. She was six years old. Alex had been so sure that he could save her.”

“The night she died Alex came home. I went into the kitchen to get him some tea.  Alex was sitting in his chair crying for that little girl. He tried to stop and sit up when he saw me but he couldn’t. You have to understand, Maureen. During that summer we had all been leaning upon him taking from him the strength that we needed. You had taken your share. I had taken mine.  He had nothing left for himself.  He had not even had time for grieving, for his lost friends, for your mother, for his brother. All that grief, his and ours was crushing him.”

“I knew what I should do. He was one of the gentry. There was them. There was us.  Give him a cup of tea, a few words of comfort and leave him.  Instead I held him as if he were my own child. I held him for God knows how long. We wept for the dead, for the living and for ourselves.”

“He kept telling me that if he had just tried a little harder he could have stopped it.  No one could have tried harder. No one could have stopped it. Then I took him to my bed. Later, nights later we made love as men and women do but during those first few nights I just held him. He was so tired.”

“So you became…”

“His mistress? Father O’Farrel said it was a mortal sin. I told him that I would rather burn in hell with Alex than spend eternity with Sean O’Farrel.”

Maureen looked down for a moment. “Why didn’t he ask you to marry him?”

“He did. Twice.”

“But I thought…”

“I know. It would never have worked. Alex could never understand that. A bogtrotter as mistress of Kilmarnock? What would this town have thought?”

“But your children? They think…”

“I know. They would never have been able to accept him as a father. The memory of Padraic was too strong and Alex had no wish to replace that. He wanted to marry me out of a sense of obligation, of duty.  I didn’t want that. Besides, how would it have changed anything? For fifteen years I shared his life, cooked his meals, washed his clothes and shared his bed. He helped to raise my children and paid for their schooling. He gave Anna her shop in Kilmarnock. I am sorry now that I said no. Alex must have thought that he had disappointed me somehow.”

“Why didn’t you go with him?”

“He asked me to stay here to take care of you and George. Besides, it was my home. I kept hoping that the two of you would patch things up.”

“I didn’t want him to leave, Rebecca.”

“You didn’t want him to stay either. You wanted another Alex MacTavish, a gentleman doctor with fine manners the kind you saw in Kingston and read about in books. That’s not Alex. It never has been.  I kept hoping you two would stop banging your heads against each other. Now I know he’ll never come back. So, I’m going to him.”

Maureen stroked Rebecca’s wrinkled callused hands. “I’ll bring him home Rebecca. I promise you.”

“He won’t come back. Not after this. Not without the boy.”

“He can bring the whole damn district. It doesn’t matter.”

“No.” Rebecca shook her head. “He has no reason to come back.”

“He has one, Rebecca.”  She placed her hands on Rebecca’s and told her about Alex’s condition.

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