I also came to know my father much better, for after the search for Mrs. Dempster in the pit he put himself out to make a friend of me. He was an intelligent man and well educated in an old-fashioned way; he had gone to Dumfries Academy as a boy, and what he knew he could marshal with a precision I have often envied; it was he and he alone who made the study of Latin anything but a penance to me, for he insisted that without Latin nobody could write clear English.
Sometimes on our Sunday walks along the railroad track we were joined by Sam West, an electrician with a mind above the limitations of his work; as a boy he had been kept hard at the Bible, and not only could he quote it freely, but there was not a contradiction or an absurdity in it that he did not know and relish. His detestation of religion and churches was absolute, and he scolded about them in language that owed all its bite to the Old Testament. He was unfailingly upright in all his dealings, to show the slaves of priestcraft and superstition that morality has nothing to do with religion, and he was an occasional attendant at all our local churches, in order to wrestle mentally with the sermon and confute it. His imitations of the parsons were finely observed, and he was very good as the Reverend
Andrew Bowyer: “O Lord, take Thou a live coal from off Thine altar and touch our lips,” he would shout, in a caricature of our minister’s fine Edinburgh accent; then, with a howl of laughter, “Wouldn’t he be surprised if his prayer was answered!”
If he hoped to make an atheist of me, this was where he went wrong; I knew a metaphor when I heard one, and I liked metaphor better than reason. I have known many atheists since Sam, and they all fall down on metaphor.
At school I was a nuisance, for my father was now Chairman of our Continuation School Board, and I affected airs of near-equality with the teacher that must have galled her; I wanted to argue about everything, expand everything, and generally turn every class into a Socratic powwow instead of getting on with the curriculum. Probably I made her nervous, as a pupil full of green, fermenting information is so well able to do. I have dealt with innumerable variations of my young self in classrooms since then, and I have mentally apologized for my tiresomeness.
My contemporaries were growing up too. Leola Cruikshank was now a village beauty, and well understood to be Percy Boyd Staunton’s girl. Spider Webb still thought me wonderful and I graciously permitted her to worship me from a distance. Milo Papple had found that a gift for breaking wind was not in itself enough for social success, and he learned a few things from the travelling salesmen who were shaved by his father that gave him quite a new status. It was an era when parodies of popular songs were thought very funny, and when conversation flagged he would burst into:
I had a dewlap,
A big flabby dewlap,
And you had
A red, red nose.
I dream of Jeannie
With the light brown hair,
Drunk in the privy
In her underwear.
These fragments were always very brief, and he counted on his hearers bursting into uncontrollable laughter before they were finished. Nuisance that I was, I used to urge him to continue, for which he very properly hated me. He also had a few pleasantries about smelly feet, which went well at parties. I refused to laugh at them, for I was jealous of anybody who was funnier than I. The trouble was that my jokes tended to be so complicated that nobody laughed but Spider Webb, who obviously did not understand them.
The great event of the spring was the revelation that Percy Boyd Staunton and Mabel Heighington had been surprised in the sexual act by Mabel’s mother, who had tracked them to Dr. Staunton’s barn and pounced. Mrs. Heighington was a small, dirty, hysterical woman whose own chastity was seriously flawed; she had been a grass-widow for several years. What she said to Percy’s father, whom she insisted on seeing just as he got nicely off into his after-dinner nap one day, was so often repeated by herself on the streets that I heard it more than once. If he thought because she was a poor widow her only daughter could be trampled under foot by a rich man’s son and then flung aside, by Jesus she would show him different. She had her feelings, like anybody else. Was she to go to Mr. Mahaffey right then and get the law to work, or was he going to ask her to sit down and talk turkey?
What turkey amounted to remained a mystery. Some said fifty dollars, and others said a hundred. Mrs. Heighington never revealed the precise sum. There were those who said that twenty-five cents would have been a sufficient price for Mabel’s virtue, such as it was; she consistently met the brakeman of a freight train that lay on a siding near the gravel pit for half an hour every Friday, and he enjoyed her favours on some sacks in a freight car; she had also had to do with a couple of farmhands who worked over near the Indian Reservation. But Dr. Staunton had money — reputedly lots of money — for he had built up substantial land holdings over the years and was doing very well growing tobacco and sugar-beet, which was just coming into its own as an important crop. The doctoring was a second string with him, and he kept it up chiefly for the prestige it carried. Still, he was a doctor, and when Mrs. Heighington told him that if there was a baby she would expect him to do something about it, she struck a telling blow.
For our village, this amounted to scandal in high society. Mrs. Staunton was elaborately pitied by some of the women; others blamed her for letting Percy have his own way too much. Some of the men thought Percy a young rip, but the Cece Athelstan crowd acclaimed him as one of themselves. Ben Cruikshank, a tough little carpenter, stopped Percy on the street and told him if he ever came near Leola again he would cripple him; Leola wore a stricken face for days, and it was known that she was pining for Percy and forgave him in spite of everything, which made me cynical about women. Some of our more profound moralists harked back to the incident of Mrs. Dempster and said that if a parson’s wife behaved like that, it was no wonder young ones picked up notions. Dr. Staunton kept his own counsel, but it became known that he had decided to send Percy away to school, where he would not have his mother to baby him. And that, Headmaster, is how Percy came to be at Colborne College, of which in time he became a distinguished Old Boy, and Chairman of the Board of Governors.
The autumn of 1914 was remarkable in most places for the outbreak of the war, but in Deptford my brother Willie’s illness ran it close as a subject of interest.
Willie had been ill at intervals for four years. His trouble began with an accident in the Banner plant when he had attempted to take some rollers from the big press — the one used for printing the newspaper — without help. Jumper Saul was absent, pitching for the local baseball team. The rollers were not extremely heavy but they were awkward, and one of them fell on Willie and knocked him down. At first it seemed that nothing would come of it except a large bruise on his back, but as time wore on Willie began to have spells of illness marked by severe internal pain. Dr. McCausland could not do much for him; X-ray was unheard of in our part of the world, and the kind of exploratory operations that are so common now were virtually unknown. My parents took Willie to Pittstown a few times to see a chiropractor, but the treatments hurt Willie so much that the chiropractor refused to continue them. Until the autumn of 1914, however, Willie had come round after a few days in bed, with a light diet and a quantity of Sexton Blake stories to help him along.
This time he was really very ill — so ill that he had periods of delirium. His most dramatic symptom, however, spoken of around the village in hushed tones, was a stubborn retention of urine that added greatly to his distress. Dr. McCausland sent to Toronto for a specialist — an alarming move in our village — and the specialist had very little to suggest except that immersions in warm water at four-hour intervals might help; he did not advise an operation yet, for at that time the removal of a kidney was an extremely grave matter.