Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Women's Work

We had enjoyed a cozy chat over tea in her somewhat old-fashioned, but beautiful parlour. My editor had warned me that the old woman was still sharp-witted despite her advanced years and I found this to be true. We had whiled the afternoon away, talking about her experiences as an emigrant to Canada more than sixty years before and her subsequent literary career.

“In Europe, autumn and winter evenings are for ghost stories,” she said in response to a passing remark I made about the afternoon turning to evening quickly, a reminder of the coming winter.

“Well, then,” I answered, “Perhaps you can tell me about the origins of the ghost on Lakeshore Road, since you were one of the first settlers.” While researching Mrs. Parr’s long life, I had come across a small note in an old edition of the newspaper about sightings of a ghost.

She seemed not to hear my question. Instead, she turned away from me to instruct her maid to draw the curtains and light the lamps. My editor had told me this was a famous trick Mrs. Parr used to gather her thoughts or to avoid a question she did not care to answer. He said the best method was to simply let the silence fall, unremarked upon.

Finally, she set her teacup on the table. “First, you must promise me that you will not publish any of what I am about to tell you until I am dead. I’m an old woman. I’ve lived almost a century. You won’t have long to wait.”

I knew, then, that what she was about to tell me was going to be a cracker of a story, whether it proved to be true. I had long since learned in my journalistic career that the best tidbits came off the record. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook and took up a sharp pencil.


Late autumn was always my favourite season when we were living in the bush. I gloried in the colours of the trees, the crispness of the air. Nothing satisfied me more than taking stock of everything I had preserved for the winter. And yet, there was always a worry in the back of my mind. Had I done enough? Were we ready for the long, cold nights? Even now, so many years later, I think of those days.

Strange to think, but our little string of houses that clung to the old shore road, was a world of women. My husband and my brother often left me and my sister-in-law Anna to manage our joined farms as they pursued more fitting employment for two gentlemen. Further down the road, there lived a woman whose husband left her behind to pursue his game and drink. He had been briefly in my husband's regiment and was the sort of wastrel whose family was all too eager to dispatch to Canada.

Anna and I would often take baskets to this poor woman, Maude. Sometimes, I would feel a pang of guilt as she eagerly took whatever scraps we could spare. While my sisters at home would sneer at my rough hands, Maude let me feel superior. Anna and I would spend hours talking over Maude's situation. Neither one of us would say aloud that while Anna was pretty, young and accomplished, she had ruined her life by marrying for love.

I knew little of traditional accomplishments as my father had given me the classical education he would have given a son. At thirty, I married to avoid spinsterhood and escape the genteel poverty of home. Anna was the daughter of a local farmer. My brother had decided a wife familiar with the land and the work required would be a much better match than any impoverished gentlewoman he could have found in England.

Were Anna and I truly Maude's friends? It shames me to say that we were not at first. She was our Christian duty, abandoned by a profligate man, left to starve with her children. She couldn't afford any help and knew nothing of managing a household, let alone a half-cleared farm on the edge of the wilderness.

But that day, helping my little daughter string apple slices for drying, I didn't think of Maude. I was spinning out schemes for leaving our farm for town life. I missed concerts and teas and not fretting about preparing for winter. I wanted to meet with other writers and read newspapers when they were new and not months old. The smell of snow in the air put a chill in my heart.

I was surprised when Maude came into view, bare-headed, without a shawl despite the coolness of the day. She was practically dragging her oldest child behind her. The little boy stumbled and staggered to keep pace with her. Her other child, she clutched tight to her chest.

"Maude? What a surprise. Come inside and I'll get you a cup of chicory coffee,’ I said, hastily putting my apple slices to the side.

Maude's wild glance frightened me. I whispered to my daughter, “Run and get your aunt. Tell her Mrs. Thursby is here and is ill.”

I put my arm around Maude's shoulder and guided her inside. My servant girl took Maude's children to another room to ply them with fruit preserves and bread and butter.

Maude's hands shook as she took a cup of coffee. “Oh, Jane. I need your help. Something terrible has happened.”

"Are you ill, Maude?” She began to shake and I covered her with one of my shawls.

"Jane, is your husband at home?”

"No. He and Mr. Stacey went to town to inquire after some government posts. You don't seem yourself. Are you quite well?" My usual superior satisfaction with myself evaporated in the face of her very real distress.

"Good. Can you come back to my house with me? Please. I need your help." She took my hands and looked into my eyes with such naked earnestness that I was a bit ashamed for her.
Anna bustled in. "Now, then, Maude. What is the trouble?"

Maude repeated the same vague details that she had given me. Anna was relieved to find that Maude's children were happily playing with my daughters. Anna pressed for more information; she always had a more forthright manner than I. However, it was futile. Maude would only say that something terrible had happened. Finally, Anna proposed that we take the cart over to Maude's cabin.

The little cabin was the last one before the road petered out into a trail. Maude's husband had been able to host a bee to get it and the barn built because he had plied neighbours with plenty of liquor. But it was all a slapdash job and nothing had been done since the building to improve the cabin. It was painfully cold in winter. Maude's upbringing had not prepared her properly. Nor had mine really. But she had only learned to be ornamental and amusing. I, at least, was able to earn a living with my pen and also had abundant common sense. Maude had none of these and had chosen her husband poorly. She had no recourse but to rely on the kindness of people such as Anna and me who looked down our noses at her.

When we arrived, Maude sprang from the cart and ran to the door of her cabin. She turned to us, "I want you to help me, but I will not be judged. Can you promise me that?"

Anna cleared her throat. I blushed. We promised not to judge.

Trembling, I followed Maude into her small home. Anna gasped and gripped my hand so hard I felt as if my bones would break.

Lying in a pool of blood was Maude's husband. A clothes iron was on the floor beside him. I won't describe what else I saw. It was too horrible. Anna ran back into the yard and sat down heavily on the grass. Her face was pale and sweaty.

Maude, strangely, was much calmer now that she had shared her trouble with us. "Do you think they will hang me for this? I did not mean to kill him. I only wanted him to stop. You see, he was trying to choke me." I had not noticed before, but she had a muffler around her neck. She pulled it away to show me the bruises.

"Maude, dear, what happened?"

"He came back, looking for money. He always believed that I had hidden some of my fortune from him. My uncle had tried to write into the marriage settlement that I should have my own income, safe from Roger. But Roger had refused to sign and I was too stupid to know better. But Roger suspected my uncle sent me money."

"Did he? Send you money, I mean?"

"No! Do you think I would let my children nearly starve on what meagre handouts you brought us? No. The only thing I had was my mother's pearl set that I had hidden from him. I so wanted Julia to have it to wear when she married," Maude began to cry. "He was so angry that I didn't have any money to give him. He flew into a rage."

I looked about and saw her furniture was tossed around and even broken. She had so little left for that brute to take. "And he told me that he had another wife. In America!" She began to sob in earnest. "He told her that he was a widower. I thought a thousand times of pretending he was dead and moving away from here to start again as a widow. But I had no money! And I couldn't profane the vows I made before God."

I sighed and avoided looking at the terrible corpse. "You were defending yourself? Did your children see?"

"No. I sent them out as soon as he came in. They don't even know him."

Anna came back in, restored to her usual brusqueness. "We must go to the magistrate. Tell him exactly what happened. Perhaps he'll be merciful," she said.

"And if I go to jail or even hang, will you care for my children?" Maude asked.

"Yes, of course." Anna said.

"But does it have to come to that?" I asked. "No one but us knows he was even here. He won't be missed. He's nothing but gaming debts and liquor."

"And if we're caught? Then we may hang too," Anna said.

"We won't be caught. Think. What do we need to do? We need to dispose of Roger. And then get rid of all this blood. What if we set fire to the cabin? Remember when the fire came through two summers ago? The Smiths’ cabin burned to the ground. Nothing was left. Fires happen all the time."

Anna shook her head. "No. Bones don't burn like that. There would still be something left of Roger. I remember a fire when I was a little girl. Nothing was left of the house, but they found the bones of the people still inside." She paced about for a while. It was her habit when thinking. I had always thought it a shame that she had no schooling beyond learning enough to keep her household accounts.

"The lake. It's vast. We could take him out there in the rowboat and sink him. There's a huge pile of stones at my farm from the when the masons built the new stone house. We can use some of those. Then we burn the cabin," Ann said.

"And in a few months, Maude, we can tell people that you had received word from America that your husband has died. Then you're free," I said.

Maude clapped her hands. "Thank you. I knew you'd be able to help. Do you really think I'm still pretty enough to get married again?"

I felt a chill in my heart, but I brought myself to say, "Yes. You'll find yourself a rich widower within the year, I should think."

We carried out our plan just as we had described it and were back to our farms before our husbands returned. Maude concocted a story of her flight from the fire and her children were small enough that she was able to tell them the story enough that they believed it.

Yet, it weighed on me. We had helped a murder go unpunished. Was it the right thing to do?

For many nights after, I couldn't sleep. One day, my husband asked me what I had on my mind.

"I am happy that we've made a success of our bit of land here in the bush," I said, "But I would like to put my education to use and found a girls' school. It's a new country. I'd like girls to be able to earn their own way in life rather than rely on marriage to protect them."

My husband, bless him, kissed my cheek and said, "A wonderful project. Not too many people have our luck, do they? Such a pity."

“Was his body ever found?” I asked at the end of Mrs. Parr’s tale.

“Oh yes. But it washed up so far down the shore that the no one ever thought it came from our area. I only saw the notice in the paper because I had published a story in the same edition. It was a ghost story, naturally.” She laughed.

She and Anna had founded their school. It had been part of my research for this story. I had talked to former students who spoke of the well-rounded education they had received.

“And what about Maude?”

“She regained her health. She was still quite a young lady. And men were always so plentiful out here. Very few women were brave enough to emigrate in those days. I was wrong, though. She did not marry an old widower. Instead, she found herself a nice young bachelor. He was a merchant and they lived quite well. She died quite a long time ago. Her children still write me.”

“And you never told anyone about Roger?”

“Oh, well, I’m a terrible liar,” Mrs. Parr answered. “My husband knew almost immediately that something had happened. I confessed it all eventually. He said it wasn’t right that anyone should hang for relieving the world of Roger. I married a good man. It was always a true partnership.”

Mrs. Parr died several weeks later. On the way back from the memorial service, I thought of how she had seen this part of the country change.

I decided not to publish her story. But I did take a trip down Lakeshore Road in the late autumn.

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