It had been a mistake, a bad one, telling the old man. Better to have kept it between the young one and herself. Her mother would be cursing her, if she could, screaming and turning all red in the face, pulling at her hair, pacing in front of the fire, the latest howling baby clenched in her scrawny arms.
But her mother hadn’t lived, had she? The last one had killed her. Killed her and himself as well, the fool. Her mother cursed God and His mother as she died. Amy was the oldest, it was up to her to clean up the mess and call Father O’Malley—who did come, right away, to the girls’ surprise. And offered genuine sorrow at the deaths. He was a great comfort to her sisters, but not to her, Amy, the eldest. What comfort could anyone find in such a death?
Her father, however, remained in his usual seat at the King Street bar, even after she stopped there with the news, drinking until his eyeballs fairly floated. Spending what little was left of his thin pay packet on all who gathered to drink to his wife’s death. Amy and her sisters would clean up, they assured him. They were good girls, and isn’t that what good practical girls were for?
She shook her head: enough remembering. Think on the here and now. She had never been a “good” girl, but she always prided herself on being a practical one. This was an excellent position: The food plentiful and good—meat, milk and eggs, fresh bread, crisp vegetables, not the half rotted ones the staff had been served at her last situation—the bed warm and soft, the mistress not too harsh. The younger girls were spoiled and rude and difficult. But she had lived with much worse. Too bad that the oldest daughter wasn’t with the family more. She was kind.
Stupid thoughts. She had only herself to blame. Too practical this time. Everything ruined by foolish ambition. If she had told the young one, and him alone, things would be all right, wouldn’t they? He would take care of it all. He had piles of money, what else mattered?
She pulled the curtains aside and peeked out. Not that there was anything to see. The drapes had been pulled down from the nursery at the big house years ago, when the children started to grow and wanted something more grownup. So her room received the curtains adorned with the yellow dolls with the blue hair, who played in the wildflower meadow in pretty frocks with flowing ribbons and smiling faces. But the drapes were thick and blocked the light and the worst of the cold, so who was she to care what childish fantasy the fabric mocked?
She loved her little room. She had it all to herself—the family were short staffed this year and had no need for nannies any more. A poor servant girl, daughter of rough Irish immigrants, she had never had a room all to herself before. The luxury was incomparable. Her only regret was that there was no view of the lake from her window. That would be truly wonderful—to watch the play of light on the water from her own bedroom.
She had never been to Ireland, she had never seen the open, storm tossed, angry sea. But she still wanted to. She had sat enraptured as her mother spun words as she spun the cloth beneath her fingers. Her thick accent relating the long tales of her childhood: tales of the dark sea and the cursed, pagan creatures that lived there. And the beauty that was the soft green land beyond.
She would be happy here, if only she had been able to see the open waters of the lake. But her tiny window looked out on the dark forest. The foreboding, enclosing, primitive Canadian forest. She hated it and always would.
She had never been to Ireland. Never touched what her mother called the sacred soil. But she had promised her mother that she would make the trip one day. Alone among the numerous siblings, she had absorbed her mother’s wild tales of the Emerald Isle and dreamt of the day that she would return. Drenched in diamonds and fine silks she would sweep upon the condescending charity school and the arrogant church that had between them conspired to destroy her mother’s soul and, full of pride and arrogance, she would announce her name and the name of her mother. She would tease them with alms and offers of donations and then withdraw the offer at the last moment. They would crawl in the dust (was there dust in Ireland? Probably not. Her mother spoke only of rain upon endless rain and lush green fields). They would crawl in the mud and she would laugh and offer a few scraps of her benevolence. Leaving them hopeful that she would return another day.
Once again, she cursed her wandering, dreaming mind (a gift, that was sometimes a blight, from her mother, weaver of words) and forced her thoughts back to her immediate concern. How could she have made such a mistake? Daring to confront the old man? How could she have been so proud, so vain and foolishly unafraid? Her mother had told her many stories of the landlords back in Ireland, the evil English men. And as she related the tales, old and new, the bitter, hot, salty tears fell on top of her daughter’s red head.
But all was for naught and her daughter had forgotten.
It was near dark. Night came late at this time of year, this far north. But not as far north as the Emerald Isle her mother spoke of every day of her life.
The family in the big house they called a cottage had finally settled down, to read or write letters or play cards. Dinner over, the cook and her helpers collapsed by the scarred table with thick chipped mugs of sweet tea. And at last she had been free to escape to her own little room. Finished for another day.
She let the curtains drop and walked to the table where she kept her few belongings. She unscrewed the top on a bottle of cologne he had bought her, touched the open end to her index finger and dabbed the moisture behind her ears and at the throbbing pulse in her throat.
This was the only present he had ever given her. He didn’t want anyone to wonder how she could afford anything too “nice.”
Footsteps on the path. Kicking last year’s dead leaves out of the way. The dog was with him, chasing squirrels and chipmunks through the woods.
It would be war soon they said. Even after the horrors of the last one, the men’s eyes glowed with the excitement of it. The women, young and old, rich and poor, loved or not, those with and those without, knew that the men were all fools.
It was time. The footsteps had stopped. She stood tall, braced her thin shoulders and placed one hand over her belly with a memory of the prayer she had abandoned as her mother died.
A chipmunk dashed out from the shelter of the undergrowth directly into Elaine’s path. From high above, an enormous dark bird swooped silently over the roadway on wide, serrated wings, and snatched the animal in its heavy talons. The pert little mouth stretched into a death scream. The hawk watched Elaine where she sat, shocked, in the illusionary safety of her red BMW. The hawk grinned at the prospect of the meal to come, and perhaps in enjoyment of the crushing of a life in its powerful claws.
In the days to come Elaine would replay the scene in her mind. Over and over.
The hawk and its prey disappeared behind a line of naked trees without a sound.
Unsure of where she was going, Elaine had been driving so cautiously that a gentle nudge of the pedal sufficed to slow the car down. She pulled over to the side of the dusty road and took a deep breath.
As her heartbeat returned to normal, she checked the scribbled directions one more time. After several false turns, at long last this looked as if it might actually be the place she wanted. A handcrafted sign had been nailed to an old pine tree on the other side of the road with the single word Madison written on it in flowery green script.
A narrow driveway ran under the tree, and beside it sat a hand-made wooden garbage bin freshly painted gray with a cheerful green trim—the sign and box that she had been told would be her signposts.
She switched the CD player off in mid-song—leaving Springsteen dancing in the dark no longer—shifted into gear and pulled into the lane. It was narrow, but paved and in good condition.
Once she left the main road the forest closed like a cape around her. Primitive, untamed northern forest that had never seen a chainsaw or shovel. Large boulders mottled ancient white and gray littered the landscape, some of them cut into pieces under the unrelenting, ruthless work of time, water and ice—nature showing off her power. Trees stretched high overhead where they tried to link arms. Branches reached out and scratched a warning on the sides of the car; long grasses stroked the undercarriage with a seductive whisper. Elaine cringed at the thought of her paint job, but the red car handled the steep hill and sharp curves with ease. It was much more car than she could afford, but in one all-out show of bravado she had sunk a good portion of her divorce settlement into the purchase. The car purred as it crested a sharp rise, and she patted the dash with affection.
The lane was long, very long. But at its end the driveway burst out of the shadows and returned to the warmth of the sun, widening to create enough space for a convoy of cars. A rusty old pick-up truck sat beside a shiny green van with handicap plates. A gust of wind blew a snowfall of brown and yellow leaves across the open yard. They swirled to a stop against the garage door, joining the season’s residue already piled in the nooks and crannies of the outbuildings and against rocks and massive tree trunks.
Elaine stepped out of the car and breathed in both the air and the view. She pushed the image of tiny black rodent eyes open wide in shock to the back of her mind.
She only caught the briefest glimpse of a wide gray building the color of a northern lake on a cool, cloudy summer’s day, trimmed with dark forest green, empty terracotta pots, abandoned for the season, and a flash of sunlight on blue water, before the door flew open and a short, stout woman bustled out.
“For heaven’s sake, Mrs. Benson, don’t stand there gaping. You’re late enough as it is,” Ruth Czarnecki scolded, her voice tinged with panic, truly felt. “Leave your bags. Someone will get them. I told you she doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Didn’t you listen?” She virtually shooed Elaine into the cottage.
“Miss Madison expects punctuality above all things,” Ruth huffed, leading the way. The door led through what had no doubt been a mudroom in the years when the cottage overflowed with children and weekend guests. It had since been demoted to the storage of a collection of old coats, gumboots, and umbrellas.
Ruth led the way down a long corridor, walking at a brisk clip. The passageway was dark, in the style of grand old hotels. The floors were hardwood, ancient and worn. A very old, very threadbare, and probably very expensive oriental rug ran down the center of the hallway. Elaine resisted the urge to drop to her knees and run her fingers across the fine wood and inspect the quality of the carpet. The walls were also wood, stained dark. In the middle of the day it was necessary to have lights lit in the wall sconces scattered along the hallway.
A collection of small oil paintings dotted the walls. The style of several of the paintings was familiar and she was sure that if she had a minute, and better light, she could identify them. Ruth stopped so abruptly that Elaine, entranced by the pictures, almost tripped over her. The housekeeper straightened her shoulders and tugged at the sides of her immaculate black dress. Taking a deep breath she raised one hand and knocked firmly. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed the heavy wooden door open and gestured to Elaine to precede her.
“You’re late,” the old woman seated in the wheelchair said. Her voice cracked with age but it was still deep and powerful. A voice that expected to be listened to.
“By,” Elaine said as she examined her watch with great care, “ten minutes. Not bad considering that there was an accident on the 400 and the highway was closed for a good few hours.”
Behind her she felt more than heard Ruth pull in her breath.
Miss Moira Madison laughed. “But late none the less. Not acceptable when I was young. My grandfather would have dismissed you out of hand. But things have changed, and most of them for the better, I believe. Come, sit over here and we can talk. Ruth, you can leave us. Ask Lizzie to have tea ready in half an hour.”
“But Miss Madison….”
“Thank you, Ruth.” Also a voice that tolerated no “buts.” The door shut firmly.
“I like you already, Mrs. Benson,” the old lady said. “Sit down and tell me why I should let you into my life.”
Elaine sat. Moira Madison was tiny. She couldn’t be much over five feet, and probably weighed less than a supermodel after a bout of stomach flu. The hands that rested on the armrests of her wheelchair were gnarled with arthritis, resembling claws more than strong human hands, the fingers looking as if they would snap as easily as matchsticks. The proud face was deeply lined and dotted with liver spots and the gray hair was sparse, almost bald in patches. But her deep brown eyes blazed with intelligence, and Elaine told herself not to underestimate this woman simply because she was old. Incongruously Miss Madison was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a beige T-shirt that proclaimed the purchaser had planted a tree in Africa (or at least donated towards one).
“I have read your books,” Miss Madison said, nodding to the little pile stacked on the desk in front of her. “And I enjoyed them a great deal.”
Goldrush was on top with Into the Bush peeking out from underneath.
“But they are old, are they not? Not as old as I might be, but old for the publishing world?”
“Indeed,” Elaine said, uncomfortable defending her work. “I haven’t had anything published for a while. But they’re still in print,” she hurried to add. “And Goldrush is being considered for use as a high school history book. Or so I’ve been told.”
“In Hollywood they say that you are only as good as your last picture. Is that true in publishing as well?”
“What do you want me to say, Miss Madison?” Elaine bristled. “Those two biographies were great successes, I’m proud of them. But I turned my attentions elsewhere and didn’t receive similar recognition. That’s all.”
The old lady chuckled. “Fame is fleeting indeed. Tell me what you turned your attentions to then?”
“My husband is…was…a screenwriter. He…we…believed that there was a good deal more to be gained by writing popular movies than biographies of pioneer Canadian women. The last few years I concentrated on doing research and editing his screenplays.”
“So why are you here, then? Without your husband? At my little cottage on Lake Muskoka, instead of delighting in the glamorous life in Hollywood?”
“Are you aware, Miss Madison, that it is against the law to enquire of a prospective employee any details of her personal life? We are veering close to that line. I’ve applied for the job of assisting you with your memoirs. You’ve seen my resume and read my work. If that isn’t enough, then perhaps I should take my leave sooner rather than later, and save us both some time.”
The old lady laughed a deep rich belly laugh that had her shaking in her chair. Her chest heaved and she patted it rapidly with one frail, vein-lined hand.
Elaine rose to her feet, wondering if she should rush for help. She didn’t want Miss Madison to collapse right in the midst of dismissing her. But she waved a thin hand in the air, indicating that Elaine should sit, and gradually collected her composure. “Oh, my dear. That is so good. Of course you are right to remind me of my legal obligations. Sit down, sit down.” Elaine sat.
“I went for a job interview once, when I was first looking for a position as a nurse, and the hospital administrator, a male of course, actually asked me if I had ever had intimate relations with a man. I was young then, so young, and times were so different. When I was a child I had to help feed my brother, I told him, when his arm was in a cast. The result of falling out of the apple tree.”
“Oh, you can laugh, young woman,” Miss Madison said, smiling. “But I had no idea what the lecherous old fool was asking. And that is why I want to get it all on paper, before it’s too late. You may find it funny, but I honestly didn’t understand why that man wanted me to take off my blouse in order to continue with the interview. Although I did know quite enough to decide that it was time to leave. I had plenty of money, of course, and all the arrogance that came with it, but I have wondered since what a frightened young woman, with few prospects and desperate for a job, would have found herself coerced into doing.
“Anyway, my dear, I obtained another position and then at the start of the war joined the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters and I learned soon enough what intimate relations are. And thus I would like you to help me write it all down.”
Elaine smiled at her. “Do you mean that I have the job, Miss Madison?”
“Indeed, you do. But only if you refuse to call me Miss Madison. I do wish that everyone who lives here would call me Moira. It is my name, after all. You may not believe it, but there are still people who remain firmly stuck in the old social structure, and not all of them are the employers.”
“Moira, it is, then.”
A subtle knock and the door opened to admit Ruth pushing a small trolley bearing an enormous silver tray, complete with matching teapot and milk and sugar bowls. They were accompanied by three sets of antique cups and saucers, painted the most delicate blue with a rim of soft yellow flowers. Small sandwiches, tiny pastries, and what appeared to be real homemade scones with clotted cream occupied a matching three-tiered cake tray. Elaine struggled to contain her excitement. The traditional English ritual of afternoon tea was her idea of heaven.
Ruth placed the tray on the table beside Moira and arranged the food on the antique desk closer to Elaine. She backed up to a chair, tucked her dress under her ample bottom, and lowered herself as if to sit.
Moira coughed. “We are not quite finished with this interview, Ruth. Perhaps today you can take tea with Lizzie.”
Ruth flushed to the roots of her over-dyed black hair and stumbled awkwardly to her feet. Mumbling hideously contrived apologies, she hurried from the room.
Moira smiled at Elaine. “Would you please pour, dear? I am afraid that my hands find it to be a bit of a chore these days.”
A trembling Elaine poured the tea into the delicate cups. She had an extensive collection of teacups herself, and she was knowledgeable enough to recognize the quality that she held in her hands. At a nod from her hostess she added a splash of milk. Moira declined sandwiches, scones, or cakes.
Elaine served herself and sighed happily. She lifted her teacup up to admire it. “This is a beautiful set.”
“My grandmother on my mother’s side brought the service over from Ireland when she came to Canada to be married.”
Elaine almost dropped her cup in terror. Then she gripped it so tightly it was in danger of shattering.
Moira swallowed a secret grin. “If you appreciate the history of my family things, my dear, I have a feeling that you will appreciate the history of my family and me. I trust you can stay.” It was not a question.
“I would be delighted to.”
“Good. We’ll begin tomorrow. Ruth will discuss terms of payment with you and you can sign a bit of a contract. If you’re uncomfortable living here, you are certainly welcome to seek accommodation elsewhere, but there isn’t anything close at hand.”
“I am sure I’ll be happy here.” Elaine helped herself to a scone and topped it with a dab of cream.
“Good.” Moira smiled. Her teeth were badly stained and fitted poorly in her large mouth. A surprise, considering the kind of money this family had. “The first thing you’ll want to do is to have a look at the boxes in the old guesthouse. Alan will show you where they are. I have saved practically every letter I ever received. You will doubtless even find a few dressmakers’ bills, as well. And a great many letters that I wrote but never sent. I was a terrible one for writing all my feelings down in a frenzy of emotion. But come the cold light of day, I would recover my wits and could never get around to posting the silly things.”
She sipped her tea and smiled at the memory of her younger self.
Elaine shivered with biographer’s delight and selected a salmon sandwich, the bread cut so thin it was almost transparent.
Tea finished, Ruth was summoned by a press of a bell to show Elaine to her room.
“Just one more thing,” Moira said as Elaine got to her feet. “Can you swim?”
“Can I swim?” What an extraordinary question. “Quite well, actually. I was on the swim team at University. Breaststroke mainly. I won some medals. Why do you ask?”
“No reason. I’ll see you at dinner.”
“When I originally applied for this position, I was rejected,” Elaine said, as a tight-lipped Ruth showed her to her room at the end of the second floor corridor. “You wrote and told me that someone else had been hired. What happened to her?”
Ruth shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“It matters if she quit because she felt that she couldn’t do the job expected of her.”
“That wasn’t the case. She died.” “She died!”
“Drowned in the lake her first week on the job. Dinner is at seven. Be on time.”
# # #
Elaine was given an enormous bedroom at the front of the cottage, overlooking the expanse of lake and the fiery display of the gentle, rolling hills beyond. The room had been decorated in typical Canadian cottage rustic: good wooden furniture, colorful area rugs, a bright handmade quilt on the huge bed, a bookcase bulging with well-handled old classics and crisp modern biographies. Television, VCR, phone, and a computer complete with printer and permanent high-speed Internet connection seemed quite out of place, but welcome nonetheless.
Elaine sank onto the bed and bounced a few times to test the springs. She could scarcely believe her luck. Although her luck, according to Ruth, had come at a high cost to someone else. But no matter—she was here now. This place was called a cottage, but to any normal person it would pass as a mansion. It was old, probably as old as any other place on the Muskoka Lakes. A remnant of the days when wealthy Torontonians and New Yorkers, with full retinues of children, relatives, and assorted hangers-on, would come north on the train, preceded by an entire network of servants who traveled ahead to ensure that all was in order when the family arrived. In those days, before a network of roads and driveways linked every property to the community, they would catch a lake steamer and be deposited, each group, right at the foot of their own dock. Wives and children, the occasional mistress and all the servants, would spend the summer here, from June through to September, and the “head of the family” would enjoy his bachelorhood back in the city and travel up on weekends to join them.
The bed found to be more than satisfactory, Elaine unpacked in haste, unable to control her impatience to explore more of the old home and property. She stopped in front of her wide window and drank in the panorama. Tough working conditions. Thick storm clouds the color and consistency of steel wool were gathering behind the hills across the lake and moving fast in the wake of heavy winds, and the lake tossed tiny whitecaps in agitation. The tree-covered hills beyond were wrapped in a frenzy of color. Orange, yellow, and auburn, as well as all the shades of green so beloved of nature and the limitless possibilities of red-to-black.
Elaine slipped into her hiking boots, anxious to explore a bit of the property before the fury of the storm crashed down upon them.
The house was multi-storied. A wide flight of stairs in the center led down to the main hall. A device for transporting Moira’s wheelchair was attached to the staircase. Stern and forbidding Madison ancestors eyed Elaine as she made her way down the stairs. She could feel their disapproval. She was an interloper, an outsider. She didn’t belong here, the pictures told her, not in the family wing. If she had any place at all, it was with the servants.
One portrait spoke to her so forcefully that she half expected to see the painted lips move. She stopped at the bottom step and faced him. He was dressed in a severe woolen suit, tie knotted tightly enough to cause the ample flesh on the neck to bulge around it. Tiny black eyes, bulbous red nose and perpendicular ears were almost caricatures. Almost but not quite. Without knowing how she could be so sure, Elaine knew that the artist had hated the subject, hated him with a passion. But he needed the commission. And so proud was this Madison ancestor that he was either not aware of the animosity or considered it to be of no consequence.
“That’s Mr. Augustus Madison, the man who built this place.” Elaine started at the voice. Ruth stood at the bottom of the steps, also staring at the portrait, her eyes unfocused and distant. “Long before my time, of course. He was Miss Moira Madison’s grandfather. A pillar of North American industry. A true visionary.”
“Really? How nice.”
Deep circles the color and consistency of used tea bags underlined Ruth’s eyes, and time had carved sharp crevices into the delicate skin of her throat and around her mouth. The harsh black hair and the glimmer of dislike in her small shrewd eyes accented every crease. She stood firm, arms crossed, blocking the steps, her expression indicating that she had swallowed something exceptionally unpleasant.
Ruth said nothing, but neither did she step aside. She filled the wide staircase simply by her refusal to move. Elaine sucked in her stomach and slithered against the polished wood of the banister. “Going for a walk,” she explained where no explanation was needed. “Get a bit of air. Feels like a storm’s about to settle in.”
Ruth’s hostile eyes followed Elaine as she walked down the hall and out the front door.
The instant she saw the view, Elaine was in love. A wide deck wrapped itself around the front of the building. In contrast to the aged stone and wood cottage, the deck was of modern style and materials: stained wooden floor, Plexiglas fronting tucked inside a blond wood frame. The deck was bare and empty, deserted in preparation for the long winter ahead. But in her mind’s eye Elaine could see it coming alive with sun umbrellas the color of tropical parrots, matching cushions on comfortable lounge chairs, terracotta pots overflowing with radiant blooms of petunias and impatiens, small tables holding bowls of black olives and mixed nuts. And relaxed, sun-kissed bodies, toweling off warm lake water, laughing and reaching for cocktails.
She looked over the edge of the deck. Wooden steps were braced against the solid rock of the Canadian Shield to lead down the hill to a flagstone path, which meandered casually along the water’s edge, as if it had nowhere in particular to go. Beside the steps an electric wheelchair ramp cast a discordant modern note into the ancient beauty of stone and wood, trees and water. A wide dock extended a good distance out over the water, and to the right of the dock there were two enormous boathouses, painted the same gray and green as the house, both closed tight against the encroaching cold. Lonely empty window boxes, green to match the trim, snoozed in the wide windows waiting for the renewing touch of spring sun. A staircase curved up the side of the largest of the boathouses, leading to a second story and the flat roof above. Everything was in immaculate condition. Not a fleck of loose paint, chipped wood, or misplaced weed could be seen.
Beyond the boathouses, across a narrow strait, sat a tiny island. A thick barrier of pine and hemlock flowed down to the boulders at the water’s edge. It boasted no signs of a dock or cottage, even of a clearing, but two rowboats were pulled up onto a bare outcropping of rock and a single column of smoke curled up from under the trees to blend into the storm-cloud gray.
The path running along the water’s edge ended at a clump of old white pine and undergrowth so thick that it blocked any view of what lay beyond. Elaine walked forward, narrowing her eyes in an attempt to peer through the curtain of foliage.
The air, heavy with moisture, swirled before her eyes. She blinked. A strange smell rose around her. Perfume. Cheap perfume. Applied with much too heavy a hand.
Through the mist and beyond the trees she saw a cabin. A neat, freshly painted cabin, nestled in the thick woods. Small but clean. Someone’s home. She saw a young, red-headed woman absent-mindedly stroking her flat belly and pacing in front of the window and Elaine sensed that the young woman was consumed with worry that she had made a mistake, a terrible mistake.
One drop of rain landed on Elaine’s nose. Her eyes flew open. The cabin, the pacing woman, the scent of perfume were gone. Leaving only the trees.
A standing-up dream. How amazing was that?
Enough exploring for today. She pushed the strange image out of her mind and dashed for shelter.