Monday, February 18, 2013

Opium Dreams: A story of Love and Loss in 1910

Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, the second part of School Marms and Suffragettes.
All rights reserved 2012

Dorothy Nixon.


HBC has arrived.

He is sitting in our casual parlour, the back parlour, the parlour off the kitchen,  just three feet from where I myself recline in the sturdy cherry wood rocking chair my Mother usually sits in. When she has the time to do so.

She has draped it, I notice, to cover the threadbare cushion in the canary yellow afghan I crocheted for her at Christmas.

HBC is staring at me with a look of confusion more than compassion, patiently, perhaps  anxiously. Waiting for me to say something.  Anything.

This boyish-looking man with a bit of a cowlick and rather red ears is politely allowing the shock of it all to sink in.

With his head of otherwise straight blond hair and the beige cardigan he is sporting over  broad boney shoulders,  he does look rather like a schoolboy, albeit a gangly overgrown one.

And he is so informally dressed compared to me, we make quite the ridiculous pair, but as he explained, he was heading out to Potton Springs with some Montreal friends when he decided to hop off the train at Richmond. And I had invited him to drop by at the first chance, so that is just what he did.

There’s no one but God to bear witness as we sit so close together in the family room of Tighsolas, my home, an awkward couple despite our age appropriateness. Both 27, you see.  In another universe  we could have become suitors.

HBC, the bank clerk, in my mother’s favorite rocking chair and me, the school marm, in my father’s world weary leather wingback.

HBC in his casual country-outing attire. Me in my formal frilly white dress.

I look quite the eccentric.  Even Miss Havisham–like.  Not a look I have previously aspired to, but quite fitting these days, all considered.

When the young man first arrived, and I invited him to come into the house to sit and talk privately in our parlour, I implored him to spare me nothing.

I wanted to know it all. 

All about the ‘mercy’ trip to Monterrey Mexico.  All about the sudden job transfer to Cornwall, Ontario. All about everything leading up to and right after the fateful fire. That infernal fire. That miserable conflagration that converted me in the space of a week from a blushing bride to be, perhaps a little on the ripe side, to an opiate-addled spinster-in-training.

As HBC began, the small subtle muscles at the side of his face rippled and pulled taut, so I knew there was more to this sad story than even I had guessed. So much, much more, as it happens.

Still, I wanted to know. I had to know, although I wished on some level that the young man hadn’t dropped in on this particular morning, despite his standing invitation to do so, despite his obligation to do so as my dear Charlie’s closest friend and ally at work and at leisure at the Bank of Montreal in Danville, Quebec.

Because as he ambled up the street on long, lanky legs, we were all sitting on the front lawn having our picture taken, me, my sisters Flora and Marion and our mother Margaret.  In our white dresses. We were all wearing our spring hats, too, our Easter bonnets, and Mrs. Montgomery, our neighbour, who was taking the picture, was having to back up onto the curb just to get our huge headdresses into the frame.

My hat, a huge black shape with pink flowers and Marion’s a small turned up shape, with blue blossoms, had been purchased in April at Ogilvy in downtown Montreal. Mine for 7 dollars and fifty cents. Hers for 6 dollars and fifty cents.  On April 29th, to be exact, just one day before the terrible event.

As I made one third Marion’s salary, my purchase was the most audacious, but I was feeling giddy that day, what with the warming late afternoon sun and the crocuses peeking out of the ground here and there on bustling St. Catherine Street, blue, yellow, and my life on the brink of the DESIRABLE.

Mother’s hat, which she had purchased a year ago locally at Miss Hudon’s  was a profusion of turquoise Japanese peony blossoms, last year’s style, but  she was still getting used to the bigness of it. She had added a yellow ribbon in way of updating. Flora’s hat, well, I don’t recall where she got it. It had no up-to-date flourishes, no velvet ribbon, just a few faded sprigs of some imaginary bloom, likely picked from the remainders basket at Miss Goyette’s, the bargain milliner in Richmond, Quebec.

It was Mother’s idea to get all dolled up in our best frocks and frills  and have a tea party on the front lawn. As we had done in the past, although much later in the summer, and usually to escape the brutal heat in the kitchen.

But it was not hot on this day in early June. There were other reasons for the charade. Mother was simply desperate, that’s all.  Desperate to save me from my spiralling sadness.  Desperate to forget her own escalating set of problems.

So after church (Mr. Carmichael’s sermon was on the Garden of Eden) we ceremoniously slid into our white dresses, a fashion from before the turn of the century, white dresses being genteel dresses, delicate, for they stained easily – that being the point. 

(Women wearing white dresses had servants to do the wash. Except in our case, it wasn’t true. We washed our dresses ourselves! It took two days, at least (with one sunny day ) to wash, dry and iron our fine, frilly white dresses.)

Our genteel impractical white dresses. I read  that Queen Victoria  started the fashion, decades ago, at her wedding, to promote British lace to the world.

As we four women sat out there, teetering on our solid kitchen chairs on the spongy lawn, my mother’s brainstorm had quite the opposite effect on me.

I could see, through the murk of my black mood, how nonsensical we looked, how pretentious even, in our silly super-sized hats and our out-of-date white dresses.

I felt somehow released from my physical body and I understood how ridiculous we appeared from the street, like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, perhaps, and I hoped our neighbours were not watching. (But, of course, they were. They always are.)

What with the card table draped in our finest white linen tablecloth, the one embroidered by me in blue silk, out on the soft front lawn. And on that table our best china and silver tea pot. I felt on display, like an animal in the zoo. Or one of those tasteless exhibits at Dominion Park I’ve heard about from my sister, the singing midgets or infants in the incubator.

“Step right up ladies and gentlemen. On view the Canadian Middle Class of Prime Minister Laurier’s Time. Aspiring to the finest life has to offer: opera, theatre, poetry, but afraid of falling into the lower class. The puzzle is, dear people, these commonplace specimens are actually working class on paper, only elevated over that class by education and sense of entitlement.

They have studied Latin, Botany, and Geometry, so are instilled with a love of Beauty, but they have not always with the means to seek it out. Like peacocks or perhaps chameleons, they disguise their true domestic situation with ostentatious displays such as this, as well as lotions and creams to hide the rough and reddened skin of their hard-working hands.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is True. These particular specimens are UNIQUE to all Canadian society, in that they Wash Their Own Clothing.

Well, this has only been true lately.

In the past, Mother had plenty of help, a live-in maid at the turn of the century and sundry washerwomen since. In the past, it was easy to find someone, often a French woman, to do your dirty work for 10 cents a day. But times have changed, haven’t they?

So, before I could shake myself of this unpleasant idea, I saw him loping up the road, HBC as I always refer to him in letters. Walking up from College Street and, I supposed, the train station.

“I was on my way to Kingsey Falls , to see a friend, so I dropped by,” he said to me after greeting my family. “We’re off on the 3.10 to Potton Springs.  To meet a group of fellows from the bank. I’m sorry, I decided to get off right then and there, about  5 minutes before the Richmond stop. There was no time for a telegram.”

“Yes, but I told you to drop by any time. So please don’t apologize,” I replied, wondering if he would want the anchovy canapés we prepared for our tea. Or should I offer him some cold tongue?

We couldn’t ask him to join us for lunch; that would be too time-consuming and uncomfortable.

And it wasn’t the point, anyway. So we quickly passed into the empty house. Straight to the parlour. The casual parlour as there was not time to prepare the formal parlour for a visitor.

He asked me only for a glass of water.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” he repeated. “You are celebrating something? A birthday?”
“Quite the opposite,” I assured him.

I brought him some well-water in a green glass tumbler. And then I asked him to proceed. Without further delay. To tell me all he knew about the circumstances of the fiery death of my Charlie G. Right from the beginning. From the trip to Mexico in October up until that dreadful night in late April, the night Haley’s Comet so ominously passed over  the smoke-stackful town of Cornwall, Ontario and my beloved, almost fiancé.

I wanted to know the minutest details. All that Charlie was doing the three months since our informal engagement over Christmas, especially whatever he was doing that he didn’t tell me about in his letters.

He couldn’t have spent ALL his spare time in the Presbyterian Church – as he had wanted me to believe. Even I knew that he was writing  this only to please me. To prove his conversion to The Way had stuck.

So HBC began, leaning back on the old couch, his right elbow at right angles to his head as he flattened the hair on the back of his head with his palm. His bicep was a muscular one, I noticed, larger than Charlie’s. I guess you call men like HBC wiry, deceptively strong.

But then suddenly taking on the posture of a much older man, possibly imitating his own father or a beloved Academy teacher, he opened his mouth to speak.  About Monterrey. About Cornwall. About the circumstances of the Rossmore Hotel Fire. I think it took about an hour in all; I can’t be sure. And, then, as it all began to sink in, the uncomfortable unpleasantness of it all, the uncleanliness of it. And  I suddenly realized,  with an invisible icy hand slapping my face, that I had been protected all these months from the truth of the situation, protected by dear Charlie as well as by HBC, his best friend. Protected as we older Nicholson sisters, Marion and I, protect little Flora from the more unpleasant truths about our own dear, devoted, but deeply troubled family.

I had been protected from the real reason Charlie went to Mexico in the first place and protected from the real reason he was transferred away from Danville to Cornwall immediately upon his return.

Worst of all, I had been protected from the knowledge about myself, about my self-defeating female narcissism, my shallow self-absorbed existence.

I had spent the last year believing myself to be the damsel misused and mistreated, because I enjoyed the part of a being tossed in love. I took to my bed like some wealthy habitué in a bad novel, and, true to type, guzzled tonics to my soul’s content, more to elicit pity than to recover from debilitating grief.

HBC articulated it all to me in plain English. Plain enough. At some points I had to read between the lines.

Everything that Charlie had done in the past few months he had done for me, for love of me. Out of desire to marry me – and this as soon as possible.

He did not get cold feet in October when he left for Monterrey after the typhoon. He was not trying to weasel himself out of our understanding in March, when he asked for a transfer to Cornwall.

Charlie was trying to make this marriage happen.

I wasn’t a victim. I was a victimizer.

How could HBC look at me, now? He had to be thinking the same thing as I was.

This handsome man of the middle class, son of a prosperous  farmer (although lacking the latter’s charm) and just  like Charlie, stuck in the reasonably respectable, but oh-so-hopeless  profession of bank clerking.

A reasonably well-educated man, Academy II, with no serious connections in the business world, so no real hope of bettering himself. A young man thinking of moving out West, like just about everyone else his age around the Eastern Townships of Quebec, like even my own dear father.

He had to be thinking:  “If it hadn’t been for you, Charlie would still be alive.”

Yes, he would still be alive, my Charlie. And I could sense a sick sensation seeping through little spider vein  like cracks in my pitch black state of mind. I was feeling nauseous. Because the truth was sickening, I guess.  And so monstrously ugly.

“So that’s why Charlie spent his off hours in the church. Not to impress me, but to hide from those who would harm him?”

I looked HBC straight in the eye. I noticed he had green eyes, like my sister Marion, but not as watery.

HBC answered nothing. I guess there was nothing for him to say.

He examined the dark oak of the sliding doors that separate the family room from the reception room, the same woodwork my father had installed himself years ago, with such pride, as trim like this added greatly to the cost of the house. But times were good back then.

HBC finally spoke. “You should know. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. Strictly speaking. He’d want you to know. He wouldn’t want you to think ill of him.”

And with that final word he sprang from the chair to leave.

Think ill of him? How could I possibly?  I was the villain in this piece. Not dear Charlie. Dear dead Charlie.

Burned beyond recognition. His body identified only by the tie pin nearby. In that stairwell of the Rossmore Hotel.

Half of his body anyway. (HBC hadn’t told me this first: I had read it in the Ottawa newspaper.)

“I have to catch the next train,” he said. He had a full half hour, and the train station was 10 minutes away, but I didn’t  argue.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a salted pork sandwich for your trip?  “I asked out of politeness.

“No, we are planning an early dinner at the hotel in Potton Springs.”

(Men are so lucky. They can eat anywhere, anytime.)

And with that he took his straw boater from the table and turned about pirouetting elegantly on his lithe muscular legs.  But I knew I had to ask him something more, before he left. As out of context as it was, but there you go.

He was moving toward the door now, “I’ll see myself out, Edith.”

So I stopped him, extending a lacy fore-arm his way.

“I have one more thing to ask.”
“Do you know where I can get some. For my own use?”

Now it was his turn to be shocked.

So I explained.

“I’m running out of medicine, you see. And it’s not like the City here. Everyone knows me. Dr. Moffat is a relation. Mr. Sutherland, the druggist, is a good family friend.”

HBC stared down at me with those engaging green eyes.

“No, Edith, I don’t. I’m sss sorry,” he stuttered.

He folded his hat in his hand. And then he rushed out into the hall and out the front door. I raced into the reception room and to the window and saw him blow by my mother and sisters taking tea on the front lawn, without so much as tipping his hat. Well, he could hardly. He had twisted it, like a dirty rag, between his pale fists.