Authors: Guy Vanderhaeghe
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Westerns
The Trouble with Heroes
My Present Age
Things As They Are?
The Englishman’s Boy
The Last Crossing
A Good Man
I Had a Job I Liked. Once
Copyright © 2011 by Guy Vanderhaeghe
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Vanderhaeghe, Guy, 1951–
A good man / Guy Vanderhaeghe.
PS8593.A5386G66 2011 C813′.54 C2011-902101-3
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
Although a number of historical figures appear in this novel many of their actions have been invented and their motivations for others purely imagined. The rest of the characters are entirely fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction, not history.
Cover image: (horse) © Matthias Clamer/getty images ;
Cover design: Kelly Hill
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
July 25, 1876
THOUGHTS OF MOTHER
early this evening. She came back to me complete, the memory like a fist slammed to the heart. Father always called her “the dragon without scales” to diminish her, but he was like the wolf blowing on the brick house of the third little pig. She did not tumble or collapse under his scorn, not once. Even when he chose the little maid from Quebec, Solange, over her and decided to live as man and wife with his skivvy in the house in Ottawa, Mother maintained what Father mockingly described as her irrepressible dignity. That phrase was never a joke to me; her dignity was real, hard as diamonds. When she decamped to Toronto, it was not because she was fleeing scandal and sympathetic glances as everyone in Ottawa assumed, but because Toronto was where she was born, where she grew up, where she was wooed and won by the man whom the papers always identify as “thelumber baron, Mr. Edwin Case,” a man who, prosperous as he was even in those days, would never be rich enough for her parents to overlook his rough and ready ways, to forgive him for snatching her up and carrying her off. Philomena Case, née Edwards, simply marched back home, head held high, and sunk her roots back down in the flinty soil of her family.
Grandmother Edwards was long dead by then. Grandfather lasted two more years after Mother’s marriage fell apart. Grandfather Edwards did not trust the man who had disgraced his daughter to continue making payments to her once his father-in-law’s watchful eye closed on the scene. Which means he did not know Edwin Case, who, tenuous as his sense of honour is, is still capable of twinges of bad conscience. Grandfather left Mother the old house in Toronto and a tidy sum to ensure she would be provided for until the end of her days.
The memory of the end of her days is what reared up its head and laid its basilisk eyes on me tonight. In the weeks before she confessed to me her foreboding of death, I noticed nothing except that she seemed a little pale, a little tired, but whenever I dared an observation on her health she said it was nothing but the oppressive summer heat. When the leaves changed, so would she. Or so she claimed.
Then came the afternoon I found her in her bedroom on the second floor, sitting by the open window, flicking bread crumbs to the birds on the lawn below. Nothing unusual in that, it was a daily ritual, but she happened to be wearing an old evening gown, and that was more than strange. Poor Mother. I once overhead a friend of hers say, “Philomena is the only woman who can wear a silk dress and leave the impression it is a hair shirt.” Perhaps putting on that dress was a signal to me of who she was, a lady long on character, short on style. Mother knew herself.
She held up a cheek to me and I brushed it with my lips. A woman chary of displays of physical affection, but this much was permitted. I stood at her side, watching the mob of sparrows quarrelling over the dry crumbs, hopping about, flapping their wings, pecking at one another.
“Greedy beggars,” I said.
“The pot calling the kettle black. You, constantly dunning your father for money,” she said, but fondly. She pointed to the dressing table. “I have something for you there. Please bring it over.”
I crossed the room. The item lay beside Father’s wedding gift to Mother, the silver comb and brush that he had had proprietarily engraved with
., the initials of the new name he had bestowed upon her. Mother’s present to me also had initials stamped on its red morocco cover:
. For the first time, I held the little book whose blank pages would chastise me for a decade. I christen them tonight with Mr. Turncliffe’s ink.
“For your birthday,” Mother explained.
“It doesn’t speak very well of me when my own mother can’t recall the date of her only child’s arrival in the world. My birthday’s three months off.”
There was no smile. “Sit down, Wesley,” she said.
“You are being very mysterious. Why are you in that dress?re you going out tonight?”
“No, I am not.” She paused. “I give you this today because in three months it may not be possible.”
It was second nature for her to veil her feelings. She had raised me to do the same, but my hands began to tremble. I recalled Dr. Cowan had paid her a visit the day before. My voice faltered. “What is it? What has that old quack said to you?”
Her answer was no more emotional than it would have been if she were reporting gardener O’Reilly’s opinion on the condition of this year’s tea roses. “It was not what Dr. Cowan said, but rather the manner in which he said it. He prescribed rest. That is the cure-all for what ails you when what ails you cannot be cured.” She looked down at the sparrows. “If your father were here, Dr. Cowan would have given him the diagnosis. With me, he thinks, Frailty, thy name is woman, and says nothing. I expect that you will soon be called to his consulting rooms and given the news. I thought you deserved a warning.” She hesitated. “Whatever he tells you, don’t keep it from me.”
My wits and tongue betrayed me. All I could offer was stumbling, anodyne drivel.
She turned from the window and threw me a look of warning. No cheerfully silly words. Keep them to yourself. I neither want nor require them. The late-afternoon sun was full in the window behind her, shaping her dark and solid in my eyes. But at the edges of Mother’s silhouette, the streaming sunlight flared in her hair, glinted off her shoulders. She was sculpted by shafts of light, chiselled by radiance.
Mother would frown at that description. Tall for a woman, long-legged and long-armed, she towered over Father. It embarrassed him, her height. And then she was saddled with what she wryly referred to as “the fleshly embodiment of the Edwards’ family motto – ‘first before all,’ ” a nose so salient it entered rooms well in advance of the rest of her. She thought of herself as homely, but in that moment, in my eyes, she trumped beautiful.
A mirror shows traces of Mother to me. My height, my gangly arms and legs, my own prominent beak, my own “first before all.” What I wish most to see is some evidence of her strength wink back at me, but that is one quality a pier glass can’t reflect. When I returned from the consultation with Dr. Cowan I tried to feign strength. With counterfeit stoicism I repeated his words: Tumour in the lower bowel. Unquestionably malignant. Unquestionably inoperable.
Mother only nodded and said, “Thank you.” For the first time in my life I heard her sounding frail and lost. It set me off, my shoulders heaved.
“My dear boy, so much like his father,” she whispered, half to herself, half to me. An observation that continues to bewilder me. I have inherited nothing from the Baron but his temper. But perhaps seeing me weep reminded her of some scene that occurred behind closed doors back in the days when matters came to a head over the maid Solange. Had Father stood before her, tears spilling down his face, as I did then? Had he too realized what he was losing? Unlikely. If Father cried, it was because he could not have his cake and eat it too.
I see I have walked o before the horse. I must backtrack to the moment Mother gave me this book, a moment when I could still dismiss her premonition of death, a moment when she glowed in her old-fashioned evening gown, and she said, eyes flitting between the squabbling sparrows and me, “I have a confession to make. You may think it insignificant, but I assure you it is not.” She pointed to the journal resting on my knees. “When I turned fourteen, your grandmother gave me a diary such as that, and it has had a great effect on me. I have kept it faithfully.” She pondered a moment, lips tucked in thought. “No, I must be exact. When I say I have kept it faithfully, I do not mean to imply I write an entry each and every day. That has always struck me as far too self-regarding. But each year, on my birthday, I draw up a summation of my character. Where I have failed, where I have succeeded. I recommend the practice to you. It need be no more than a few lines, but they must be unsparingly honest, which means you must bear witness to all your qualities – both good and bad. The mind has a way of making a detour around uncomfortable truths unless it is forced to focus on them. And putting something down in ink – well, I think it concentrates the mind wonderfully – like the prospect of hanging,” she said. “And ink has another advantage. It is permanent. It does not permit you to escape it or yourself, as long as every now and then you make a point to review what you have written. Any time I choose to I can compare the girl of fourteen with the woman I have become.”