My father knew about the bears, or at least about Felix, but he raised no objection, and from one or two remarks he let drop I know why. He had been impressed by what he had heard of Winnie-the-Pooh, and he felt that a bear was a proper toy for an upper-class little English boy; he had a great admiration for whatever was English and upper class. So Felix and I led an untroubled life together even after I had begun to go to school.
My father’s admiration for whatever was English was one aspect of the ambiguous relationship between Canada and England. I suppose unkind people would say it was evidence of a colonial quality of mind, but I think it was the form taken by his romanticism. There was something terribly stuffy about Canada in my boyhood — a want of daring and great dimension, a second-handedness in cultural matters, a frowsy old-woman quality — that got on his nerves. You could make money, certainly, and he was doing that as fast as he could. But living the kind of life he wanted was very difficult and in many respects impossible. Father knew what was wrong. It was the Prime Minister.
The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King was undoubtedly an odd man, but subsequent study has led me to the conclusion that he was a political genius of an extraordinary order. To Father, however, he was the embodiment of several hateful qualities; Mr. King’s mistrust of England and his desire for greater autonomy for Canada seemed to my father simply a perverse preferring of a lesser to a greater thing; Mr. King’s conjuror-like ability to do something distracting with his right hand while preparing the denouement of his trick unobtrusively with his left hand had not the dash and flair my father thought he saw in British Statesmanship; but the astonishing disparity between Mr. King’s public and his personal character was what really made my father boil.
“He talks about reason and necessity on the platform, while all the time he is living by superstition and the worst kind of voodoo,” he would roar. “Do you realize that man never calls an election without getting a fortune-teller in Kingston to name a lucky day? Do you realize that he goes in for automatic writing? And decides important things — nationally important things — by opening his Bible and stabbing at a verse with a paper-knife, while his eyes are shut? And that he sits with the portrait of his mother and communes — communes for God’s sake! — with her spirit and gets her advice? Am I being taxed almost out of business because of something that has been said by Mackenzie King’s mother’s ghost? And this is the man who postures as a national leader!”
He was talking to his old friend Dunstan Ramsay, and I was not supposed to be listening. But I remember Ramsay saying, “You’d better face it. Boy; Mackenzie King rules Canada because he himself is the embodiment of Canada — cold and cautious on the outside, dowdy and pussy in every overt action, but inside a mass of intuition and dark intimations. King is Destiny’s child. He will probably always do the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
That was certainly not the way to reconcile Father to Mackenzie King.
Especially was this so when, around 1936, things began to go wrong in England in a way that touched my father nearly.
I never really understood Father’s relationship with the Prince of Wales, because I had included the Prince as a very special and powerful character in my childish daydreams, and the truth and the fantasy were impossible to disentangle. But children hear far more than people think, and understand much, if not everything. So it began to be clear to me in the autumn of 1936 that the Prince was being harassed by some evil men, whose general character was like that of Mackenzie King. It had to do with a lady the Prince loved, and these bad men — a Prime Minister and an Archbishop — wanted to thwart them both. Father talked a great deal — not to me, but within my hearing — about what every decent man ought to do to show who was boss, and what principles were to prevail. He lectured my mother on this theme with an intensity I could not understand but which seemed to oppress her. It was as if he could think of nothing else. And when the actual Abdication came about he ordered the flag on the Alpha building to fly at half-staff, and was utterly miserable. Of course, we were miserable with him, because it seemed to Caroline and me that terrible misfortune had overtaken our household and the world, and that nothing could ever be right again.
Christmas of that year brought one of the great upheavals that influenced my life. My father and mother had some sort of dreadful quarrel, and he left the house; as it proved, he did not come back for several days. Dunstan Ramsay, the family friend I have mentioned so often, was there, and he was as kind to Caroline and me as he knew how to be — but he had no touch with children and when our father was angry and in pain we wanted nothing to do with any other man — and he seemed to be very kind and affectionate toward Mother. Netty was out for the day, but Ramsay sent us children up to our own quarters, saying he would look in later; we went, but kept in close touch with what was going on downstairs. Ramsay talked for a long time to our weeping mother; we could hear his deep voice and her sobs. At last she went to her bedroom, and after some rather confused discussion, Carol and I thought we would go along and see her; we didn’t know what we would do when we were with her, but we desperately wanted to be with somebody loving and comforting, and we had always counted on her for that. But if she were crying? This was terrible, and we were not sure we could face it. On the other hand we couldn’t possibly stay away. We were lonely and frightened. So we crept silently into the passage, and were tip-toeing toward her door when it opened and Ramsay came out, and his face was as we had never seen it before, because he was grinning, but he was also quite clearly angry. He had an alarming face for children, all eyebrows and big nose and lantern jaws, and although he was genial toward us we were always a little frightened by him.
But far worse than this we heard Mother’s voice, strange with grief, crying, “You don’t love me!” It was in no tone we had ever heard from her before, and we were terribly alarmed. Ramsay did not see us, because we were some distance away, and when he had thumped downstairs — he has a wooden leg from the First Great War — we scuttled back to our nursery in misery.
What was wrong? Caroline was only six and all she could think of was that Ramsay was hateful not to love Mother and make her cry. But I was eight — a thinking eight — and I had all kinds of emotions I could not understand. Why should Ramsay love Mother? That was what Father did. What was Ramsay doing in Mother’s room? I had seen movies and knew that men did not go to bedrooms just to make conversation; something special went on there, though I had no clear idea what it was. And Mother so wretched when Father had inexplicably gone away! Bad things were going on in the world; wicked men were interfering between
people who loved each other; what mischief might Ramsay be making between my parents? Did this in some way connect with the misfortunes of the Prince? I thought about it till I had a headache, and I was cross with Caroline, who was not inclined to put up with that from me and made a terrible fuss.
At last Netty came home. She had been spending Christmas with her brother Maitland and his fiancee’s family, and she was loaded down with things they had given her. But when she wanted to show them to us we would have none of it. Mother was crying and had gone to bed, and Mr. Ramsay had been in her room, and she had called those strange words after him in that strange voice. Netty became very grave and went to Mother’s room, Caroline and I close on her heels. Mother was not in her bed. The bathroom door was slightly ajar, and Netty tapped on it. No answer. Netty peeped around the door. And shrieked. Then she turned at once and drove us from the room with instructions to go to the nursery and not dare to budge out of it till she came.