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The McGregors
Courting


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.

"Mitchell, Mitchell next!" "Seaforth, Seaforth next!"

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 points north."

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 expression.

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.

"Can't hold them back you know, sonny."


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