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The McGregors
A Visitor


October frosts came before the basement excavation was started. Willie Ross was hired to drive the team, while Jim and Dan MacDonald took turns handling the plough and the big slushscraper. Once below the topsoil, the ground was hard and stony, and Jim bounced around on the plough handles, feet swinging wide, touching the ground at intervals.

"Hold them up, Willie, or you'll see me flying over your head!"

"I never saw this kind of ploughing before, Jim, and the team hasn't either. They go at it like wildcats."

The subsoil was broken with the plough, and then the team went on the big scraper with heavy handles. The hole went down gradually as the dirt and the stones were scooped out and slid a few yards to make a new driveway that would curve gracefully around the front of the new house.

"You spoil a nice corner of the grain field wandering about with the lane that way," Willie observed. "And every time ye gang to the toon, it's four rods farder."

"Ah, but you haven't the artistic soul, the eye for beauty, Willie. I'll have you know that people will come for miles to see this driveway and this house when all is done."

"That may be, but the lane looks more like a pile of mud to me. But I shouldn't argue with my betters, who have the artistic soul and whateffer."

Rain and early snow plagued the three workers. They finished the basement with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow as the weather cleared, and Adam and his helpers got the foundation built just before the December snows.

This second winter found the two pioneers well-seasoned and snug enough. They had a good reserve of food: cured meat, preserved fruit, apples, vegetables, and all the necessaries. The cows kept them in milk and butter, and the hens, unlike most of the settlement fowl, laid eggs occasionally, because Janet gave them warm water to drink and turnips to pick at. Unlike the first year, there was no urgency. Jim worked steadily at the clearing, while Janet did most of the chores. As Christmas approached she announced, "I think we should drive to Goderich for the holiday. I haven't seen Grandfather for a long time and there are some things I want to buy, because we may have company in the spring."

"You mean visitors? That's something new."

"I mean a visitor, stupid, a permanent one. I should see Dr. Craig, Jim."

"Well, can you imagine that!" Jim gaped with surprise. "I hadn't thought of such a thing."

"Well, what do you expect?" Janet was nettled. "It often happens, you know. Grandma Haig will be pleased when she hears."

The trip to Goderich took four hours on the good winter road. They stopped for an hour at Dungannon, a pleasant, busy village now, and by night reached the lakeshore town. The lake was grey, with sullen ice edging the shore, but the big house welcomed them, looking strangely roomy to Janet after the cramped cabin. As they celebrated Christmas and drank the German wine, Jim looked back on the past two years; they seemed so short, and yet he felt as though half a lifetime had passed. He looked at Janet as she sat by the fireplace and said, half shyly, half proudly, to her grandfather, "How could she have given up all this to live with a man like me, denned up in a cabin in the backwoods?"

It was May when they again drove to Goderich. "I hate to be away from you, Jim, but I feel safer with Dr. Craig near, and it will only be for two or three weeks."

Janet was optimistic, as she had been all winter. Jim had marvelled at her matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation. This was a happy thing, something most female creatures experienced, and while some care was necessary and some preparation had to be made, it was, after all, a perfectly natural event. But Jim could not think of it this way; he was uneasy all winter, full of vague fears. He made excuses to come to the cabin while he worked at the clearing. And only when he found his wife singing quietly while working at some ordinary task was he reassured. Back at work the shadowy worries soon reappeared. Things had happened to other men's wives during childbirth which he had thought little about until now. He tried to push them far back in his mind in a flurry of chopping.

"Make yourself hot meals now," Janet said at parting. "This sandwich business is a lazy man's way and no good for the hard work; and don't forget to feed the hens a warm mash every day if you want any eggs. And my kitten, let her in every night, it's still too cold outside. Oh, Jim, do take care of yourself. I'll worry about you."

Jim's voice was husky. "Old Jim will make out all right; just you be careful and write often. I'll meet the stage every night."

"Don't be silly. I'll write Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Even then Matty will say we are daft. Get along home now before I start to cry."

Jim stopped at Dan MacDonald's. "I'm back from Goderich, Mrs. MacDonald. Janet thinks it's time and I left her at her grandfather's."

"Ah Jim, we'll miss her, but come in and have your supper, man. It's hard going home to a cold house."

Jim could not help confiding his fears to the older woman, who was so obviously sympathetic. "I'm worried, Agnes. I can't help but think of the ones that died only this year, all young wives with their first babies. It's a cruel thing and I never thought of it until this winter, but now I cannot get it out of my mind."

"Och, Jamie, sit ye down now and we'll have a bit to eat when Dan comes in. Here, man, is a nip of whiskey to warm your insides; and you must think of other things. You're a man now. Face up to this the way you have to everything else. Nothing's going to happen to Janet. She's a healthy lass, strong as a horse, and she hasn't laced herself in as the silly ones do. I give you my word she will be all right."

Jim left later, well fed and reassured, but Mrs. MacDonald turned to her husband with a worried face. "Ah Dan, I spoke brave words to the boy. I hope I don't have to eat them. I can't help but think how we lost our first and how near I was to death. I pray to the good God that all will be well."

Matty Wilson, the mistress of the post office, was solicitous as she handed Jim the first letter. Her wizened, heart-shaped face held a little to one side, she looked at him with the blank innocence of a child.

"I hope it's good news, Jim. We all think so much of Janet and wish the best for her."

Jim slid the letter in a pocket. It felt a little sticky and had a slightly rumpled look as though it might have been steamed open and carefully resealed.

I'm well, Jim, in case you are wondering, but Dr. Craig says it won't be long. He says 'don't worry everything is fine and I'm healthy as a trout.' I didn't know trout were all that healthy. I wish it was over. Did you feed the kitten? I forgot to tell you that there is a hen that lays under the back steps. Grandfather is all worked up about the baby coming. He fusses around like an old hen. I miss you so much darling.

Love, Janet.

Jim was better at the letter-writing now.

Hello, Honey. Glad you are well and you aren't the only one that wishes it was over. I talked to Agnes MacDonald and told her how worried I am. She says, 'poo-poo Jim, nothing to it Jim' but I know she's anxious about you too and so is Matty Wilson for she had your letter steamed open and all sealed up again before I got there. I'll meet the stage this time and I'm waiting to give this to the driver.

I miss you so much and the kitten looks at me as though I had done away with you.

Love to my own girl, Jim

The next letter was from Dr. Craig. Jim froze as he saw the strange envelope. He held his mind a blank as he opened the letter with clumsy fingers. "I mustn't think. I mustn't think." He read it twice before the words registered. They were simple enough.

Congratulations, Jim, you have a boy. Everything is fine. Janet will write soon. Glad I patched you up that time.

Hiram Craig

Janet must have insisted on writing to Jim as well, for, after reading Dr. Craig's letter, he noticed another sheet of paper in the envelope.

We are all well here and hope you are the same. Grandfather is extra well, in fact he has been a little drunk for two days. Mr. Harper helped him celebrate. Dr. Craig says I can go home in a week. I can go on the stage if you think it best, but if you like to meet me, come a day early. It is lovely weather for a drive. Remember the first one? Little John is just wonderful. He has all the things he's supposed to have, fingers and toes and you-know-what.

Love to you and Matty Wilson, Janet

The MacDonalds were the first to hear the news. Mrs. MacDonald opened the door to see Jim's wide grin. "It's a boy, Agnes."

"Well glory be, come here till I hug you, lad." They clung together for a minute.

"Come in and sit ye down. Oh, I'm so happy. I was afraid for her, Jim."

"I thought you said there was nothing to it. All in the day's work you said. Go home and stop worrying you said." "I had to cheer you up, Jim, you looked like the end of a hard winter; but I must call Daniel."

She went to the back steps where a wagon wheel hung from a post and smote two sharp whangs with a piece of steel pipe. Echoes rang over half the township and Dan's head and shoulders appeared over a low door in the stable.

"Good news, Daniel. Come and help Jim celebrate."

Dan came in, accompanied by a whiff of stable smell.

"I see you're looking like a father, Jim, a bit silly-like; but a man can't help that with his first."

"I'm all of a twitter, Dan, but I see Agnes has something to calm me down."

Agnes had a bottle of dandelion wine. She poured three water-glasses full.

"It's three years old," she said. "Just right for such an occasion. I've been saving it."

The wine was clear gold in colour. It smelled of a flowering hillside in a hot sun and slid down creamy smooth with a delicate taste of the dandelion honey. The three sat around the kitchen table with the cracked oilcloth, and warmth, like a benediction, spread through them, body and soul.

"It's a great day for you, Jim." Dan leaned his hairy forearms on the table. The scarred fingers with the broken nails made the wine glass look small. His square face, tanned with wind and sun, had a gentle look not usual in this seemingly harsh man. "Our first died, you know, but that's all past now. We just live for the future, Jim, for the day the boy fells his first tree. Fill the glasses again, Aggie, we'll drink a toast to young John."

"That's a good strong wine, and very tasty." Jim set down his empty glass as Agnes went to the cellar for another bottle. "I'm glowing like a new bride."

"I think she spikes it, Jim. Her uncle, Peter Cameron, makes potato wine, and then he distils it back in the swamp into something he calls brandy. If you touch a match to a spoonful it burns with a nice blue flame. I know she has a bottle hid somewhere. No wine has a lift just like this has."

They sat long at the table. They joked and laughed and were very merry indeed. Jim would cherish these moments long afterwards. He rose at last.

"I mush get home," he said, "and tidy up the housh. Janet will want it clean for the boy. Thank you, Agnes, for the wine. It was mosh dish-delicious." He untied Gamey and got into the buggy carefully. "Goodbye Daniel and Agnes; bless you both. A man never had better neighbours than the two of you."

They watched as Gamey wheeled out of the gateway, narrowly missing a post, and turned homeward. Agnes took her husband's arm. "He's not in that buggy at all, he's riding on a cloud, but Gamey should get him home safe. Oh, Dan, if we just could be young again."


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