When Janet's train left Stratford on
the way to Goderich for the Christmas holiday, the tempo of the
passengers, the crew, and even the train itself, changed. The seats were
of hard wooden slats, the coaches were heated by wood-burning stoves, and
the windows hadn't been opened since last November. The train smelled of
wet furs, steaming woollens, long-lost crumbs from lunch buckets, and
other things not even that respectable. The passengers, though, became
different people. Instead of sitting rigidly, looking to neither right nor
left, they became convivial. They wandered from coach to coach,
recognizing old friends and making new ones. Even an enemy, if he came
from your home town, became an honorary old friend, a temporary truce
holding good for the duration of the trip. The members of the train crew
became Jack or Bill or Joe and mingled in a most democratic way with the
passengers. As this was the Christmas season, bottles appeared here and
there, drinks were taken, at first surreptitiously, then openly. Ladies
gathered together, and from under a cluster of large hats came giggles and
squeaks of laughter. A general air of relaxation and Christian fellowship
prevailed. As the succeeding stations approached, a brakeman would walk
through the three coaches alerting the passengers.
He would be followed at a suitable
interval by the conductor. "Mitchell, all out for Mitchell." "Seaforth,
all out." "Clinton, all out for Clinton. Change for Blyth, Wingham, and
With the departure of the
Clintonites and those unfortunates destined for places north, only a hard
core remained. Dedicated people, these, who lived at the end of the line,
the lakeshore town. They collected now in one coach, savouring the
last of the fellowship, but already it
was noticeable that Mr. Sims and Mr. Warden, the two morticians of
Goderich, had already drawn a little apart. They had been exchanging
shoptalk all the way from Mitchell. After the train left Clinton, the
editors of the rival papers, the Signal and the Star, became more formal,
each wondering how he could break off his former chummy conversation
without loss of dignity. As the train slowed, sliding between landmarks
familiar, yet oddly askew, the passengers began a period of orientation
much the same as moon travellers of the present returning to earth. They
had been away to far places to Berlin (now Kitchener), to Toronto, or even
to Ottawa and Montreal. Hurtling through the night at twenty-five miles an
hour, their metabolisms had been upset.
The town looked small, the station tiny. Things were
somehow unreal in a slightly different dimension. The passengers spilled
out onto the platform and felt the crisp snow underfoot. Friend called to
friend. Smoke and steam blew back from the panting engine, and then it was
that the town became real and the train foreign.
Janet looked about for Peter or her grandfather. They
were not to be seen, but a giant in a fur coat approached. "Janet, Miss
Ellis, don't you know me?"
She stared open-mouthed. Tall herself and used to
looking level-eyed or even down at men, this was a new experience.
The giant towered six inches or more over her and wore
a tall fur cap of the type affected by governors general and other
aristocrats. His moustache was neatly trimmed and he had been newly shaven
by a barber liberal with bay rum.
"Why, Mr. Jim McGregor" - she extended a hand - "how
nice to see you. I had forgotten that you were so tall, or have you grown
since I saw you last?"
"No, I haven't grown, and I may not be any smarter than
when I mixed up with those sailors, but you might find that I'm a good
deal easier to manage. I persuaded your grandfather to let me meet the
train. I hope you don't mind."
"No, that was kind of you. But how did you know that I
would be on this train?"
"I sort of kept in touch. Let me take your bag. I have
a horse and cutter here."
He led the way to where a horse, obviously a spirited
animal, was tied. A new red-and-black cutter stood high on its runners,
very tippy but in the latest fashion. Red-and-black robes hung over the
back and on the seat. Janet pulled the robes high and prepared to enjoy
herself. They flashed down a long street, the houses lighted and decorated
for Christmas, and then swung on to the square, the business section,
which was really a circle about a third of a mile around. The stores
flashed past in the night, all lighted, with people going in and out
carrying parcels. The courthouse loomed on the left in the centre of the
little park. Small trees lined the inner circle. Snow lay all about,
small-town snow, still clean and white.
"Perhaps I should direct you Jim. You seem to have
forgotten our street."
"I just want to show off the girl I have with me."
"And perhaps the horse and cutter too, all the property
of Mr. Jim McGregor." Janet could not resist this.
Although Jim made no reply, Janet sensed that, as he
guided the light cutter with skilful grace, he was not quite the rough and
tongue-tied boy of the previous summer.
As they pulled up at her home, Janet said, "You must
tie the horse and come in. I'm sure Grandfather will have a drink for you,
it being Christmas time."
Peter met them at the door. "Blanket the horse, Jim. I
have sandwiches and cake ready, and Grandfather has some wine. We'll make
merry for Christmas Eve."
They ate and drank before the fireplace in the big
living room. Bone-dry apple wood crackled in the grate, throwing out its
own particular aroma.
"Nothing like apple wood for a fireplace," said
Grandfather Ellis. "We burned it in the old country, but it's hard to get
here, all the orchards are so young."
The wine was German, a good vintage. "They have some at
the Albion every Christmas," the old man said. "They very kindly let me
have a few bottles;" Jim did not care for the wine particularly, it was
too subtle for his taste, but the whole evening was something new in his
life. The fragile wine glasses, the mellow lighting of the room, the
paintings on the walls, the graceful furniture, all this was a glimpse of
an elegant life transplanted from Britain and struggling for a foothold in
a hard country - a country that was to hold any kind of culture suspect
for another hundred years. For the rude backwoodsman it was a revelation.
Most disturbing of all was the girl quietly watching the fire, her feet
stretched out to the blaze. Her hair was piled high on her head in the
fashion of the time, the gentle lines of head and neck graciously
feminine. In profile her face was longer than usual, and the nose, very
slightly tilted, contradicted a firm chin. A bemused Jim gazed raptly and
unnoticed, his mind storing up the picture. "She's not really pretty," he
thought. "She's more than that, she's beautiful."
A group from one of the churches broke the spell as
they began to sing carols in the street. The little gathering sang the
carols, too, and then it was time for Jim to go. He bid them all goodbye
at the door. He said, "There's a gift for you in the cutter, Janet. I'll
bring it now."
She went out into the chill air of the porch as the
others retired indoors. She followed with her
eyes his tall form as it strode so confidently toward the waiting cutter,
the snow creaking under firm footsteps. The air, cold and brittle, seemed
to hold the moment still as the man returned to her.
"It's a Paisley shawl, Janet. It came from Scotland. My
mother said you were to have it."
"It's beautiful. I thank you both, but I thank you most
for thinking so kindly of me."
This time she made no mistake. Reaching up to get both
arms well around his neck, she kissed him, and more went into the kiss
than she had intended. She broke away, flustered. "Go now, go quickly, see
how the horse is stamping. He's cold, poor fellow."
Hardly knowing what he was doing, Jim swung the outfit
about. The horse followed the street to the square, rounded it, and swung
off at the proper street leading to the hotel barn, with hardly any
guidance. He had been thinking of that warm barn for the past hour. Jim
walked to his hotel room still in a trance, unable to believe what had
happened. Only a semi-educated man, he had read no books or romances that
could have helped him at this time. His only contacts with gentility had
been with his mother, and she had seven others to guide as well. His
exulting maleness knew that this woman had come part way to meet him. She
could be petted and cajoled into responding physically, and he longed to
have this happen. But here instinct took over. Like a wary woods-animal
avoiding a trap, he sensed something new here. This was no woman to be
swept off her feet. A man was lucky if once in a lifetime such a woman
came his way. The situation was delicate. Like the fragile wine glass he
had held in his hand that evening, it must be grasped firmly; yet clumsy
fingers could shatter something precious.
A round of parties and all sorts of entertainments
marked the holiday season in the little town. Jim found less expensive
lodging for himself and the horse. He was already running low in funds,
but he cast caution aside in giving Janet what was known at the time as
"The Grand Rush". He took her to dances held in the town or sometimes in
schoolhouses close by, where "Everyone was welcome" and paid admission.
There were several house parties and one ball, an ambitious affair. Janet
was invited to the ball because of her grandfather's social position.
Dancing together was a delight which she had not anticipated. The big man
was a superb dancer; feather light on his feet, he responded to music in
perfect time. In the reels and square dances he moved with sure grace and
in only one evening she taught him to waltz. At a house party someone
produced bagpipes, and Jim, no stranger to Scottish dancing, essayed a
sword dance. Perfectly executed in response to the weird wail of the pipes
imprisoned in the small room, it was marked by wild leaps and eerie
Highland shouts. Janet crossed her arms on her breasts and held herself
tightly to conceal the shivers of emotion. This was her man, there was no
doubt of it. She would have followed him anywhere on that night.
The country parties lasted into the morning hours. When
they drove home the nights were clear, the blustery winds which blew all
day from the lake having declared a truce. Only the sound of the bells
broke the brittle silence. The stars shone cold and clear, and there was
no warmth in this land, the bitter land of Canada. It was a land that made
no compromises, that seemed to resent these human ants crawling across her
rocks and through her forests. Yet, in this vast loneliness, three living
creatures moved in a small bubble of companionship, drawing comfort from
each other. The horse was secure, trusting to the master guiding him, and
the man and the girl were happy just to be together. They maintained a
bantering relationship only slightly warmer than brother and sister. But
there were overtones of something more, waiting only the right time for
Not unused to male companionship, Janet had prepared
herself for some diplomatic evasions. There had been times with other
suitors when eagerness had to be curbed. She had even prepared a small
speech which might be used to keep this man at a proper distance without
hurting his feelings and without entirely shutting out hopes of future
intimacies. But she was a little disturbed to find that it was not needed,
for Jim was a model of discretion. Of course, when they drove along a
quiet road he would put a long arm about her, shutting out the chill and
the loneliness, and he always insisted on kissing her goodnight. But there
was positively nothing to which a girl could object.
There were, too, certain vibrations passing back and
forth between them when they sat close. An urgency built up. And Janet
sometimes sat tense, unable to make up her mind if she were afraid
something would happen or afraid it wouldn't.
On the last night of the holiday they went to Janet's
cousins, Fred and Stacey Ellis, newly married and very much in love. They
lived on a farm well out of town. Although the home was a log cabin, it
was a spacious one. A huge fireplace warmed the living room with an
extravagant blaze; burning maple logs, four feet long, threw heat across
the entire room. The other young couples, Richard and Emily, Ted and Phemy,
with Stacey's younger brother Tom, who played a mouth organ, made up a
hilarious group. They sang, they danced, they drank punch and more punch
and danced some more. The evening ended at last as they sang "Auld Lang
Syne" without becoming melancholy and everyone had one last drink for the
road. Jim, not unused to such a celebration, managed fairly well. Fred and
Richard insisted on helping Jim hitch his horse to the cutter.
"Good ol' Jim," said Fred with an arm over his shoulder.
"Mus' come back and bring Janet. Be sure to bring old
Janet. Hold the shaft, Richard. Let old Jim get hitched."
"Gotta hold the lantern, Fred, gotta dance. Feel like
dancing. See me step-dance, Jim."
"Hold it, Rich, you'll have the horse dancing on top of
you. Let old Jim do the buckles, Fred."
They got the horse hitched at last and called to Janet.
She found to her horror that once out in the crisp night air she became
unsteady. She compensated by walking the few steps necessary with an
immense dignity and a regal carriage. She did very well, stumbling only a
little as she stepped in the cutter. At once they were on their way, the
horse stepping out eagerly, and she relaxed, snuggling closer to Jim. They
sped along for several miles in silence; suddenly they both turned and
regarded the other with immense gravity. Janet broke the spell.
"Hello, Mr. McGregor," she got out, followed by a
tremendous hiccup and a hysterical giggle.
Jim reached an arm around her, then realized one arm
was not going to be enough. He leaned forward with the reins and wrapped
them around the whip, then gave full attention to the business at hand.
There were no pretty speeches; they clung together without words, and the
embrace became as intimate as it could be under the circumstances. The
horse plodded on, managing well enough until a turn in the narrow track
left him with two left feet in loose snow. As is the unfortunate habit of
spirited driving horses he became panicky, realized he was not being
guided, and made several leaps forward. The cutter swerved and tipped;
Janet and sundry robes and parcels fell out. Jim, clinging desperately to
the cutter, managed to get a hand on the reins and stopped the horse,
which was now wallowing through deep snow. He got the outfit onto the road
while Janet retrieved their belongings. Briefly sobered by the accident,
they lapsed then into helpless laughter.
"Oh Jim, Jim, the horse would have gone right on to the
barn and left us to walk home. Oh, what would people have said?"
"I know right well what they would have said."
Jim fetched the horse a smart flip with the whip and they
were silent while some lost time was made up.
"Jim, please, there's snow down my neck and it's melting."
There was another tender episode while the snow was
removed, but Jim kept a wary hand on the reins. There was never a
chaperone to equal a Canadian winter.
A few hours later he took her to catch the morning
train to the city. It was not yet full daylight. A damp wind blew from the
east, far more unpleasant than the frosty chill of the earlier hours, and
after a brief three hours' sleep, every movement seemed painful. They were
silent. There were things to be said, but neither could begin. The air in
the coach was cold and stale as they entered and Janet found a seat. The
train made some preliminary shuffles and groans. They looked at each other
white-faced. Jim found his tongue.
"Janet," he broke out, "I want to ask you to marry me,
but I have nothing, nothing to offer you. You have always had things that
I am a stranger to. It will take years, Janet."
She looked at him gravely. "I would expect the man I
marry to have some possessions, but perhaps not as many as you might
think. Let me know how it fares with you, Mr. McGregor."
A shaky smile spoiled the nonchalance, and they clung
together for a moment. But the train was already moving. Jim rushed to the
steps and swung out on the handhold. He clung to it for several long
strides and ended in a snowbank. The dray man eyed him solemnly as he
picked himself up.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.