Robert J. C. Stead.

Neighbours online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryRobert J. C. SteadNeighbours → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Barbara Watson, Ross Cooling, Mark Akrigg and
the Online Distributed Proofreading Canada Team at (This file was produced from
images generously made available by The Internet
Archive/Canadian Libraries)




_Author of_ "_The Cow Puncher_", "_The Homesteaders_",
"_Dennison Grant_", "_The Empire Builders_", _etc._


Copyright, Canada, 1922




My earliest recollection links back to a grey stone house by a road
entering a little Ontario town. Across the road was a mill-pond, and
across the mill-pond was a mill; an old-fashioned woolen mill which was
the occasion and support of the little town. Beside the mill was a
water-wheel; not a modern turbine, but a wooden wheel which, on sunshiny
days, sprayed a mist of jewels into the river beneath with the
prodigality of a fairy prince.

My father worked in the mill, as did most of the men and many of the
women of the town. That was before Unionism had succeeded in any general
introduction of the eight-hour day; my father started work at seven in
the morning and worked until six at night. His days were full of the
labor of the mill, but his evenings and the early, sun-bright summer
mornings belonged to his tiny farm at the border of the town. We had two
cows, a pig or two, some apple and cherry trees, and little fields of
corn and clover.

The mill-pond was held in check by a stone dam which crossed from the
road almost in front of our door to a point on the mill itself. The
stone crest of this dam rose about two feet above the level of the
water in the mill-pond, and was about two feet wide. Along this crest my
father walked on his way to and from the mill, but I had strict orders
not to attempt the feat, with the promise that I would be thrashed
"within an inch of my life" if I did.

And now I must introduce Jean Lane, daughter of our nearest neighbour,
Mr. Peter Lane. Jean is to travel with us through most of the chapters
of this somewhat intimate account, and you may as well meet her at four,
bare-footed and golden-haired and blue-eyed, with a wisp of white cotton
dress and a gleam of white teeth set between lips of rose-leaf. Demurely
down the road she came to where I lay sprawled on the river bank
contemplating the leisured precision of the water-wheel beyond. When she
reached me she paused, sat down, and buried her feet in the soft sand of
the bank.

"I want to go to the mill," she said, when her little toes were well out
of sight.

"But you can't go to the mill," I said, with the mature authority of
six. "You'd fall in."

"I wouldn't, neither," - she glanced at me elfishly from under her yellow
locks - "not if you helped me."

It was a difficult situation. Here was I, a young man of six, honored by
a commission of great responsibility from a young woman of four. My
native gallantry, as well as a pleasant feeling of competence, urged
that I immediately lead her across that two foot strip of masonry. But
the parental veto, and the promise of being thrashed within an inch of
my life, sorely, and, as it seemed to me, unfairly, curbed my chivalry.

"I'd like to take you over, Jean," I conceded, "but my father won't let

"Did you' father say you mustn't take _me_ over?" With almost uncanny
intuition she thrust at the vulnerable spot in the armor of my good

"No; he didn't say anything about you."

"Then you can take me?"

I dug my toes into the sand beside hers, but did not answer.

"If my big bruvver John was here he'd take me over, _quick_," she
continued, with a quivering lip.

John Lane was six, like me, and no bigger. The allusion to him as her
big brother, who would take her over _quick_, and the quivering lip,
were too much.

I scrambled to my feet. "Come," I said, with masculine recklessness,
starting for the dam, and she followed joyously.

We were about half way over when something happened - I never knew
what - but I plumped into deep water like a stone thrown from the shore.
I took a great mouthful and came up spluttering, choking, frantic. The
slippery wall gave no grip for my hands, and in a moment I must have
gone down again, but Jean's head came out over the ledge and her little
arms were reached down to mine. I grasped them and hung on - hung in
water to my neck, while Jean and I both shouted lustily.

Help came quickly in the person of my father, who had seen the accident
from one of the upper windows of the mill, and had come rushing out at a
pace which had quite upset the operatives on his route. I was dragged up
on the dam in a moment, and I can remember Jean standing beside my
father, crying a little, and saying, "Please don' scold him, Mr. Hall. I
made him do it."

I expected my father to scold her, but he took her up in his arms and
held her to his breast.

"You're a brave little girl, Jean; you're a wonderful little girl," I
heard him say, and he kissed her on the face, which he hardly ever did
to me. Then homeward he led me, wet and miserable, and speculating
silently on what it may mean to be thrashed within an inch of one's

But it proved to be a day of surprises. I was not thrashed within an
inch of my life, nor at all; I was undressed, and rubbed with a warm
towel, and put in bed, and given a large tumblerful of hot choke-cherry
wine, because it was still early in the season and the water was cold.
And my little sister Marjorie came and looked at me with large, dark,
comprehending eyes, and said, "I know why you didn't get thrashed?"

"Why didn't I get thrashed?" I ventured.

"Because you were so _awful_ wicked. When you're awful bad you don't get
thrashed; its only when you're a little bad," she explained.

I had to stay in bed for the remainder of the day, which I think was
more a punishment than a precaution, so I had opportunity to think on
Marjorie's philosophy. It was evident that she was right; I had the
proof in my own experience; I had been very wicked, and had escaped
punishment. My ideas of wickedness were well defined. Wickedness
consisted of telling lies, using bad words, disobeying one's parents,
getting drunk, and cutting wood on Sunday. All our religion was
negative; it consisted entirely of Thou Shalt Nots. It was utterly
selfish. To my father, my mother, my little sister and myself the
purpose of religion was to keep us from going to Hell, and,
incidentally, to cause us to go to Heaven, although the hope element
never weighed as much in our minds as did the fear element.

I have said that our religion was entirely a matter of Thou Shalt Nots,
but I should make one exception. There was one Thou Shalt. Thou Shalt go
to church every Sunday. Accordingly each Sunday morning I was crowded
into a pair of boots and stockings and a suit with an uncomfortable
white collar, and the four of us walked in great solemnity to the church
of our faith. There were other churches in town, but I had already
learned that it was almost as bad to go to them as not to go at all; in
fact, our minister was suspected of believing that it was even worse. In
any case we took no chances, and when, as happened on one or two
occasions, our minister was unable to preach and no substitute had been
found, we stayed religiously at home.

In the church we sat in a stiff, high-backed seat, where I was required
to be very still through a tedious discourse of which I comprehended
nothing whatever. In summer I usually contrived to enliven the time by
a surreptitious killing of beetles, with which the church was infested.
The building was small, but the preacher shouted at the top of his
voice, as though in competition with the rival preacher two blocks down
the street, which I verily believe he was. When the sermon was over the
plate was passed and I deposited a copper - the only coin I ever handled
until I was ten or twelve years old. Then we filed solemnly home again.

My consciousness of evil-doing, however, rested lightly upon me. I had
escaped the strap which hung behind the kitchen door, and which was a
much more immediate menace than any possible torments of the
after-world. I spent the remaining hours of the day in imagining
situations in which I would save Jean from all kinds of disasters.

Next morning found me none the worse for my experience; indeed my dip
over the dam already seemed a more or less vague recollection. After
breakfast I made a journey to the big pine which grew at the very end of
our little farm - a surviving monarch of the forest that in some way had
escaped the locust-cloud of axe-men which had swarmed through the
country twenty years before. All the good pine had been cut out then,
but the hardwoods, being heavier and more difficult to market, had been
left, and with them my father had wrestled many a sundown hour, and into
the night until he could no longer see. But this lone pine had remained
standing, a proud and melancholy reminder of the greatness of the forest
and of the insane destructiveness of the maggots of men who had
over-run it, sweeping away in a season that which the centuries had
borne but which the centuries will not return.

I took my way in the warm morning sun past the cow-stables - the "byre"
it was in those days - through the vegetable garden, and down a path
between rows of sprouting corn which led to the uncleared land at the
back of the farm. Here was a wooden fence to keep the cattle off the
corn field. I slipped easily between the bars and followed the path, now
a cow-path winding sinuously about the trunks of sturdy maples, until it
brought me under the shadow of the great, green arms. Far aloft the old
tree towered in majestic symmetry, and the morning breeze passed through
its branches with a sound as of a mighty wind. I threw myself on the
grass at its feet, and there, lying on my back, with my eyes partly
shaded by my hand, I watched the fleecy clouds far, far above as they
trailed their gossamer laces across the blue portals of heaven, and
dreamed of a day when I should do something great and be a hero in the
eyes of Jean.

Perhaps it was as I lay under the great pine on that sunny summer
morning and watched the filmy clouds float gently overhead that I caught
my first glimpse, shyly, wonderingly, through the golden gates of
romance. It was a vision of Jean; a vision which has remained with me
through the years, growing, thrilling in my moments of happiness, fading
in my hours of darkness, but at no time quite obscure. Perhaps it was my
first glimpse of that vision which brought me on that morning to my
feet where the great pine's swaying lacework of sun and shadow patterned
the green grass and set my heart lilting with the joy of being alive.

I was about to shape my lips for a whistle when I became conscious of a
presence. It was Jean, her golden locks held together by a midget
sunbonnet, save for some vagrant curls which nestled against the
peach-pink bloom of her cheeks; her chubby bare feet seeking cover in
the grass.

"I saw you going to the big tree", she explained, "so I comed too."

"Uh-huh," I commented cautiously, being gripped with a sudden sense that
this young woman had led me into difficulties only a day ago. Men cannot
be too careful.

She sidled toward me. "Do you know what you have to do for yesterday?"
she queried.

"No," I said, with some misgiving, thinking that possibly my behavior
had been reported to the Lanes to my disadvantage.

"Gwandma says when a young la-dy saves a young gen-tle-man,
he-has-to-mawwy-her," she said, speaking very slowly at first, but
finishing her sentence with a little run. "So you have to mawwy me."

She was beside me now, and her face was radiant with the excitement of
her secret.

"But I can't marry you! Only grown-ups do that!" I protested.

"Won't we be gwown-ups some day?"

"I guess so," I admitted. And then with a sudden burst of resolution I
added, "And then I'll marry you."

She held her face up to me and I leaned over and kissed it shyly. Then,
hand in hand, we retraced our way down the cow-path, along the rows of
sprouting corn, by the stables and past our house. Jean led me to her
own home, which was next to ours, down the road.

"You have to ask Mama," she said, as our little figures dropped their
shadows across Mrs. Lane's kitchen floor.

This was more than I had bargained for. I was beginning to discover that
Miss Jean was a young woman of action as well as decision. But I was

"Mrs. Lane," I said, bracing my chubby legs for the ordeal,

Jean's mother looked at me with a smile that broadened until it broke
into open laughter.

"I am afraid you are very precocious children," she remarked. I didn't
know what that meant, but she gave us each a doughnut, and we went away
happy, Jean twirling hers on her finger for a wedding ring.


That same summer I began going to school. Perhaps I should say that John
Lane and I began going to school, as it was something of a joint
adventure. We talked of it together for weeks before the great event. At
that time my objective in life, in so far as I had one, was to be a
locomotive engineer, but John had elected to be the owner of a woolen
mill - blandly overlooking the little question of capital - and we
discussed our school training in the light of these ambitions.

On the eventful morning I remember my father coming into the loft and
leaning over my bed, where I feigned sleep. "Puir wee mannie," I heard
him say, dropping into the Scotch tongue which he reserved for moments
of emotion, "it's a long road he's starting on, and a hard one, too, or
he'll no be like the rest o' us." My mother scoured me well and dressed
me in a clean new suit and took my cheeks between her hands and kissed
me, and told me to work hard and grow up a good man like my father. At
the gate I met John, and together we started down the turnpike of life.

I spent the day becoming accustomed to my new environment, and
marvelling over a certain bald spot on the teacher's head which shone
resplendent when the light struck it a certain way, and wondering what
possible advantage it could be to a locomotive engineer to know that A
had two slanting legs tied together in the middle. But nothing of
importance happened until after school was dismissed, when suddenly I
found myself surrounded by a group of boys a little older than myself. A
carroty-headed little gamin about my size came dancing out in front of
me, flinging his arms about and demanding, "Kin you fight?"

I was much too guileless to realize that this was an undersized boy,
nine or ten years old, a bully who maintained his position by picking
fights with children about his own size, but much his inferior in
strength and hardihood. Now I had never been in a fight in my life,
unless dragging Marjorie home once or twice when she was obstreperous
could be so described. I don't know what made me answer as I did;
probably it was the immeasurable insolence on his little, twisted face,
but I shouted, "You bet! I can knock your head off!"

The boast was no sooner out than I got a smash on the mouth which set my
lips trembling and drew a veil of mist across my eyes. This was followed
instantly by a blow in each eye, and I saw light dancing in all
directions. I could make no defence, and my assailant proceeded to
punish me systematically. The little circle of savages were shouting,
"Punch him, Carrots! Punch him, Carrots!" and I could have testified
that Carrots was following their advice. I threw my arms about in the
air and yelled with what breath I had left, but I did not run away; I
stood and took it. That is one of the facts of my life which I like to
remember, that although hopelessly outclassed in my first fight, I
proved that, if I couldn't give a thrashing, I could take one.

How much I should ultimately have taken I don't know, for suddenly John
Lane rushed into the circle like a young tornado. John was no more a
fighter than I, but he was resourceful; he seized the bully by the knees
and bore him to the ground, where they rolled about together.
Enheartened by this sudden change of fortune I too pounced upon Carrots,
kicking, punching, and gouging with the greatest enthusiasm. Had I been
strong enough no doubt I would have killed him, regardless of his
shrieks, "Two on one; no fair! no fair!"

For a moment or two I had one misgiving - would the supporters of Carrots
now come to the rescue of their chief? I might have saved myself any
worry on that account. They viewed the sudden change of Carrots' fortune
with surprise, certainly, but also with complacency. Very soon they were
shouting, "Punch him, New Boy! Punch him, New Boy!" and even seemed
disposed to lend a hand. But John and I handled the case ourselves,
ending in a tour of triumph in which we dragged Carrots feet-foremost
around the complete square of the gravelly schoolyard.

As we walked home together John and I knew that, for good or ill, our
lots were now inseparable. If Carrots caught either of us by himself he
would be sure to take adequate revenge. And yet, even through my
swollen eyes, I looked on the world with a new joy, and had a stride in
my gait that I didn't have in the morning. My theology did not go far
enough to advise me whether one went to Hell for fighting, so I
consulted John on the point.

"Of course," he replied, laconically.

"Then we're in for it," I remarked.

"Uh-huh. But so is Carrots, and he got the worst of it here, too."

John's philosophy appealed to me. I was beginning to feel that I could
stand what anybody else could stand. But my mother put a new aspect on
the case.

"What you been doing?" she demanded as I entered the house. "Look at
your new suit!"

Now it seemed to me that a boy who had just helped to whip the school
bully, and who had two black eyes and a mouth swollen out of shape for
his pains, had something more to think about than his new suit, so I
retorted, "I been fighting. Look at my face!"

"I'll give you all the fighting you want," said she, reaching for the
strap . . . It had been a hot day, and the cows had knocked down the
fence and got into the corn field, and mother had had to chase them out
six times, and she was tired. None of these things reacted to my

Two years later Marjorie and Jean started going to school, and we were
proud boys indeed as we led them up the aisle to the master's desk.

I have said that the religion of my parents was essentially selfish,
but I should have added that they were better than their religion. My
mother's kindness had been marked in many a neighbour's home. In those
days, when large families were still considered proper, her two children
were a comparatively small impediment; indeed, it was commonly said
among the townspeople that the smallness of my father's family had made
it possible for him to pay for and clear his farm. At any rate my mother
was a person of leisure by comparison with neighbour women who were
trying to clothe, clean, and discipline ten or twelve children apiece.

The Lanes were in the same happy circumstances as ourselves, and being
also our nearest neighbours, a considerable friendship had sprung up
between the two families. This developed as we children grew older and
had mutual interests in studies and sports. Jack - he was Jack now - and
Jean often came over to our house on a winter's evening, bringing their
school books, and the four of us sat about our big kitchen table poring
over our studies or throwing or intercepting furtive glances between
Jack and Marjorie, and, I may confess, between Jean and Frank. Jean was
fair, with large blue eyes and clear pink cheeks and lips that always
made me think of roses. They seemed always as delicate and tremulous as
a rose-leaf after rain.

At eight o'clock we would close our books, and mother would say,
"Marjorie, you may bring up a basin of apples," or perhaps it would be a
dozen ears of roasting corn, and we would sit about the fireplace,
munching in great happiness. Then we would have a game of blind-man's
buff, in which I had a way of catching Jean, or button, button, who's
got the button? or hide-the-handkerchief. And at nine Jack and Jean
would leave for home, and we would go with them to their gate, and I
would help Jean where the drifts were deep. And Marjorie and I would
walk back arm in arm, and she would talk an unnecessary lot about Jack.

Jean's first poem was written about this time. She developed it one
night while ostensibly busy at her studies, and slipped it into my hand
when we parted in front of her house. I hurried home, but my mother and
Marjorie sat so close to the lamp that I had no opportunity to read it
until I went upstairs to bed. Then I smoothed the crumpled little sheet
and read -

"When I am old
And very tall
I hope my name
Will be Mrs. Hall."

I lay awake for hours that night, joyously piecing together bits of
rhyme, but I was no versifier, and had to be content with prose. I put
it in very matter-of-fact form on my slate, which I managed next day to
leave on Jean's desk:

"Your proposal is accepted. - F.H."

When I was twelve Granny Lane died, and after that Mr. and Mrs. Lane
often came over, too. As we worked at our lessons we would hear the
restless clicking of our mothers' knitting-needles, while our fathers
fought over their checker-board in a silence broken only by an outburst
of triumph upon some clever strategy, or of chagrin when some deep-laid
scheme had gone agley. Or sometimes the men would lay aside the board,
and, turning their chairs toward the fire, with their pipes well lit and
glowing in the bowl, would begin to recount tales of their youth when
they were part of the locust-army of axe-men that had swept through the
land and in some strange way had left standing the great tree at the end
of our farm. Then lessons were forgotten, and we children drew silently
close to the fire, as, big-eyed and flushed with adventure, we entered
the enchanted halls of Romance. Sometimes it was a tale of the bear that
my father met on a lonely road at night, or of the spring-gun which Mr.
Lane had set and which had killed a neighbour's pig, for which offence
he had been up before the magistrate; or of wolverines howling along
dismal lake-shores in the moonlight, or the soft pit-pat of a panther's
footfall close to the trail, but always along side, or of the tracks of
a giant windigo which broke up the lumber camp at Carse's Ferry. And
after such a night I would crawl to bed, trembling at every creak of the
loose boards of my attic floor, and pull the clothes over my head so
that even the moon might not seek me out.

It was when I was fourteen, and about to enter the mill, that mother was
taken sick. I had never known mother to be sick, and it was hard to
understand the silent house and the darkened room. Mrs. Lane came over
and took charge, and Marjorie stayed at home from school to help.

One day as I came up the path Marjorie met me with, "Mother wants you,"
so I went into the room. Father was there; it seems he had not gone to
the mill that afternoon. He was sitting on a chair with his elbows
resting on his knees and his cheeks between his hands, and a stray beam
of light from the afternoon sun fell through the window and across his
forehead. I wondered that I had never noticed before how old he was.

"Is that you, Laddie?" my mother called in a thin, weak voice, and I
came beside the bed. "My boy, my boy!" she said, and her face worked
strangely, but she could say nothing more than just "My boy." Then I
knelt beside her, not knowing what else to do, and she put one of her
thin hands in my hair, and ran her fingers slowly, with a strange sort
of caressing, up and down and about my head. And then an odd thing
happened. She began to sing, in a strange, high, tremulous key, "The
Lord is my Shepherd." She did not sing it as you have heard it in
church, but with a gentle, rhythmic beat, like a lullaby, just as she
had sung it to me many a time when I was a little child. After a while
she seemed to fall asleep, and I slipped out again. Father had never
moved, but beads of sweat were standing on his forehead.

Marjorie met me, round-eyed and pale, at the door. "Oh, Frank! Is mother
going - is mother going - to die?" The last words were breathed rather
than spoken.

"I don't know," I said, pushing by her and gulping at something in my

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryRobert J. C. SteadNeighbours → online text (page 1 of 18)