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The McGregors
Father and Son


The McGregor farm prospered. John and his father were all the labour force necessary. Janet gave up milking cows, but retained firm control of the poultry.

"A woman has to be independent," she said. "As long as there are eggs and chickens to sell I'll never be poor."

She set an array of broody hens on clutches of eggs every spring. There were two separate flocks, a purebred and a just-any-old-breed. The purebreds hatched out anywhere from three to six of a dozen eggs set, and half of these died or committed suicide. The any-old-breed hens proudly displayed clutches of twelve out of twelve and all lived to laugh at the purebreds. Janet was philosophical about it. There were always eggs for breakfast and chicken every Sunday.

Jim was a good manager. When new implements had proved their worth he bought them. Where once Jim and John had ploughed with two teams and two single ploughs, now one of them sat on a riding plough turning two furrows and pulled by three strong horses. When hayloaders came in Jim got one, and they had the first side hayrake in the neighbourhood.

It was John who handled the horses. His teams took prizes at the fairs, and he raised colts, training them with infinite patience. He was not at his best with machinery. Few horsemen were.

When the war broke out in 1914 there was great excitement but little change on the farms.

But it was during this period of tension that Jim and John had a serious disagreement, an unusual thing because John usually deferred to his father's judgment. They were preparing ground to sow fall wheat, twice the usual acreage, because in wartime wheat would be sure to sell well, and Jim's three-horse team included a colt, a three-year-old that John had just finished training. After a day on the wheat ground the colt became fractious and Jim lost his temper and punished it. John came over to see what the fuss was. He lifted the colt's collar and spoke angrily to his father.

"Look here" - he pointed to a shoulder scald. "Haven't you sense enough after all these years to look out for a colt's shoulder?"

The words were a shock to Jim, for his son very rarely spoke sharply to him. He felt guilty, too, for John was right. But that did not make it any easier.

"I think I know how to handle a colt without help from you."

"Not this colt you don't. I'm unhitching him right now before you ruin him. You can make do with two horses."

As John led the colt to the barn Jim would have liked to stop his son and admit that he was in the wrong. But the moment was gone and never came again.

One morning after the wheat was sown, John spoke quietly at the "breakfast table.

"I have decided to enlist. Two of the boys I knew at school are going to London tomorrow to join the artillery. They want me to go with them."

Janet's teacup clattered in the saucer as she turned to him, white-faced.

"Oh John, no! You're needed on the farm; you mustn't think of it."

"Of course I must think of it. It isn't just that they need me in the army; I want to get away. Dad can manage without me, and we aren't getting along the best. I think things would be better between us if I went away for a while."

Jim sought desperately for words. "But John, you may not come back. Everyone says the war will end soon, but I am beginning to doubt it and so are a lot of other people. It could be a rotten, dirty business." But John was firm.

"All the more reason I should get into it then. I'm no better than anyone else."

Janet and Jim argued with him to no avail. They saw him twice on leave before he was bundled off to England with the rest of Sam Hughes' obstreperous, half-trained contingent of thirty thousand. And in England the contingent settled down in the mud of Salisbury Plain to spend a horrible winter that John would not easily forget.

Almost three-quarters of the Canadian group was made up of young, adventurous immigrants. After their arrival in Canada many had drifted about the country, never quite settling down. As it turned out, they were more than willing to go to the aid of the old country. The balance were young Canadians, some drifters looking for excitement, others genuinely concerned about the danger to Britain and, indirectly, to their own country. They were hard to handle, restless in the mud of Salisbury Plain, and they made themselves a nuisance. It was a relief to all concerned when they were sent to France and the front lines at Ypres.

John got a dose of gas as he served among the guns. He saw some people in grey uniforms, who came close, fell to the ground, and came no further. He was taken coughing and choking to a field dressing-station and the next thing he knew he was back in England. He contracted pneumonia, and when only partly recovered was discharged as unfit for service. The voyage home on an old ship took three weeks, and he arrived in reasonably good condition, except for the cough, which did not leave him for years. He. was happy to see the familiar town and to hear the Canadian twang again. He called his mother on the newly installed telephone. They had been expecting him, but not quite so soon.

As he left the waiting room, Eli Soames, the village simpleton, confronted him.

"Hellow Johnny, you been away?"

Others greeted him, but seemed shy of the uniform and the pale, hollow-cheeked face. They were respectful and solicitous but not pressing.

His father looked much older, somehow unfamiliar, but he had brought John's own driver, the little chestnut mare, who welcomed him with a snort and a wet slobber down the front of his tunic. As she shoved her muzzle under his arm relief flooded over him, releasing some of the tenseness and allowing familiar things to come back into place.

"Hello, Dad."

"John, my boy. I was afraid that we would never see you again."

Tears filled Jim's eyes as he held his son tight to him. John could not remember his father embracing him since he was a very small boy. The little mare stepped smartly homeward, and they lost all embarrassment in a flood of talk. As they turned in the familiar gateway Jim said, "Your mother is not well, John. She worried a lot, and then something happened this spring. The doctor says it's her heart. She isn't able for much right now. I do what I can, but my housework isn't so good. We will both have to help. I'm hoping for better things when the warm weather comes."

John felt his new-found pleasure disappear. His apprehension mounted as he saw his mother's thin figure and white face. She held him tightly.

"Oh Johnny, Johnny, it's wonderful to have you safe home. I thought we might never see you. I thank God."

In her usual way, she made little of her illness. "It's just that I'm a bit weak. It was a bad winter without you, Johnny. I'll be fine now."

But Janet did not get her strength back, and another visit to the doctor brought bad news. "He says I'm to do only the lightest of work. I can't go up the stairs. I can't churn the butter. I can't work in the garden. He says I mustn't even sweep the floor, too much swish-swish he says, trying to be funny. I don't know what will become of everything."

"Isn't there anything he can do for you, Mom?"

"Oh, he gave me some pills, some pink ones and some white ones. I suppose I'll have to do as he says; but I hate it. I hate it."

As the warm weather came she got stronger, but there were continual relapses as she attempted some chore or other. And the sight of the messy house upset her. Jim faced the inevitable at last.

"John, there's nothing else for it. I have to get your mother away from the farm. I'm thinking of taking a cottage in the village, a pretty place with a garden. Maybe your Aunt Elspeth would stay with us; she worships your mother. I know it will just break Janet's heart to leave, but it's sure to break it if she stays. I would like to keep the west lot and the swamp for a while, and I could drive out to help you almost every day. I hate to leave the place, too, it seems part of me, but we must save your mother for as long as we can."

John was shocked into silence. There was no pleasure now in thinking that the place would be his. Even the horrible bad dream of the war had not upset him as this did, for he had chosen to ignore the signs of his parents' own mortality. It was a shock to realize that his parents were aging - yes, dying subject to the same laws as all living creatures.

It was Janet who faced the situation calmly. "Your father is right, John. It's time for us to leave. We can't live forever, and the place we made will go to you, whom we love. Think what it would be if we didn't have you, if we had to sell the farm to a stranger. That would break my heart and your father's too, for all he is so matter of fact." Janet drew her son to her side, gently brushing away a shock of hair that had fallen out of place. The gesture, familiar to him since babyhood, pulled at John's heart. "John, you should think seriously about marriage. I want to see a smart young woman in our house. You know what happens when there is no woman about; the house becomes an apparition, a place to eat and sleep, but that is all. The home we built deserves better than that."

"I know, Mother, I know you're right. I'll take over the place, of course, and after a while I'll feel happy to have it. But as to the smart young woman, I'm afraid that's wishful thinking. I never was any good with girls, Mom, you know that, and I'm middle-aged now and a wreck with this cough." Seeing the disappointment on her face, he added hastily. "I'll think about it, though. Who knows what may turn up. I wish Matty Wilson was younger. She is still looking about."

They laughed at the feeble joke and let it go at that.

The three of them brushed sentiment aside while the moving was completed. There were agonizing decisions as to what was to go and what to stay, for the house in the village was small and would accommodate only part of the furniture. There would be no room for the keepsakes, the bric-a-brac, the accumulation of forty years of living, but fortunately nothing valuable had to be discarded. They all seized the occasion of the move for a clean-up, for a disposal of odds and ends, of things no longer valuable but kept for sentiment or by force of habit. They turned away from the bonfires seeking the anaesthetic of more and more work, moving in a dull acceptance of the things that had come upon them. The thing was inevitable, of course, but why had it come so suddenly and so soon?

As soon as they were settled in the village, Janet collapsed. She was put to bed for three weeks and Jim went for Elspeth, his youngest sister. Elspeth had never left the family home. She had stayed to look after her parents, and then to keep house for Angus, partly as a duty and partly because she was too timid to leave. Employment for women was scarce and very poorly paid, and her life had been useful and contented enough until after her parents died. Angus, though well on in life, had found himself a wife, and Susan, the new but not young bride, dominated the household. Although Susan was too well-meaning a woman to be cruel, she bullied Elspeth, and the timid one had no way of fighting back, for her position was too insecure. She had gradually withdrawn, scarcely talking, and doing the menial chores left her by a condescending Susan. The rest of the time she shut herself in her bedroom. She read the Bible and went to church, activities which Susan could not very well discourage.

Susan was friendly in her greeting to Jim. "Well, stranger, we haven't seen much of you, but no wonder with the moving and everything. How is Janet? Better I hope."

"I wish I could say so, Susan, but she has taken ill again. The doctor insists she stay in bed and I just about have to tie her down. She thinks that I can't get the meals and keep house, which is true enough. But where can I find Angus? I'd like to talk to him."

"He's in the byre no doubt, cleaning some pen or other. I declare I see so little of that man I might as well be a widow. He does come in to eat and sleep, though, so I suppose I should be thankful for that."

"I'll find him then." Jim was glad to go. Susan's tone was becoming waspish.

Angus was grey-haired now, but still powerful. He was indeed cleaning pens, a messy job, and he wore rubber boots and stained coveralls.

"Ah, Jamie, there you are in your fine town clothes, a gentleman. Well, more power to you. I always thought you would do well, James."

"I never looked back after you gave me that one hundred dollars, Angus."

"Oh pish-tush, man, you had earned it; but how are things, are you through moving;? How is Janet?"

"That's what I want to talk about. Janet isn't well. I doubt if she ever will be. Angus, what would you think of Elspeth coming to live with us? We could give her a home and pay her well too. She is so backward it might give her confidence to have money of her own."

"I would think well enough of it, Jim, if the girl is satisfied. It is so hard to make anything of her, she talks so little; and the truth of the matter is two women in this house are one too many. Susan is sharp with her and Elspeth mopes. She's a wet blanket, there's no doubt. Are you willing to risk that for Janet?"

"We have to risk something, Angus. Janet likes her, and anyway beggars can't be choosers. The thing is, can Elspeth be persuaded? This is her home of course if she so wishes it."

Elspeth came, dully acquiescent, but there was no way of telling if she was glad or sorry. Jim, almost a stranger, hardly knew how to talk to her. He tried to be kind, but the words sounded hollow. Elspeth had a carpetbag. This was all she owned. Janet called to her, and Elspeth knelt by the bed and stretched her arms across the bright quilt. She made a strange sound like an animal in pain, and Jim saw her shoulders heave. He closed the bedroom door. Never before had he heard Elspeth cry.


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