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The McGregors
Taking Stock

As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began the bush was conquered. The country beside the lake had opened up and just about all the available land had been settled. The population of Huron and Bruce counties reached a peak, and seekers of new land and adventurous opportunities, sons and daughters of the original Huron and Bruce pioneers, were trickling off to Western Canada. There they broke the tough prairie sod, planted the wheat, and also planted the ideals of Huron and Bruce to be cherished there for another generation.

Back in what was now a new mother country, the more conservative took stock. The towns were busy; all kinds of mills catered to the local trade. The flour mills and the woollen mills were already old. Now there were furniture factories, organ factories, foundries, and even casket factories, the woodworkers taking advantage of the plentiful supply of good hardwoods. Barrels and baskets were made from soft woods and exported. The railroads carried out the farm produce. Butter, eggs, cattle, hogs, oats, and barley moved out into the world wherever they were needed. The towns and villages, spotted here and there, roughly ten miles apart, reached their peak about the turn of the century. Hamlets, with a store or two, a blacksmith shop, a mill, and perhaps a church, were scattered between the larger centres. As the roads improved and transportation became faster there was less need for the smaller places, and most of them disappeared. The larger towns remained more or less static; some even declined, and the population of the two lakeside counties decreased. Families became much smaller and, with the advent of new machinery, fewer workers were needed on the farms. Many moved to the west; others drifted to the big American cities.

This part of Western Ontario became strictly rural, conservative in its ways and provincial in its thinking. But what the towns lacked in the steady growth of business, the hustle and bustle of the cities, they made up for in cool dignity. The storekeeper and his clerk served their customers with respect for them as well as respect for themselves. The main street was lined with good, substantial places of business that carried most of the goods needed in the community. These main streets were interchangeable; none had the least pretension to beauty. They had just grown as they were needed - blocks of stores built three or four in a group, the next three or four in another block of differing architecture. Sometimes the buildings were of no recognizable architectural style at all.

The town halls and post offices were uniformly Victorian and uniformly ugly, but no one noticed. Away from the gap-tooth horrors of Main Street, the towns were beautiful. The homes on the back streets grew, set among trees and flowers and spacious lawns. Many were Victorian, adorned with fancy porches, turrets, and verandahs trimmed with lacy fretwork, but here in the quiet green of the long streets all blended in an unassuming charm. Here there was space, space for the lawns and the gardens, space for the gracious, sprawling houses. There was no pressure here, no hurry, no particular rush to acquire all the good things of the twentieth century. Here people lived out lives of joy or sorrow, of boredom or tragedy, as anywhere else, but here there was sanctuary, the refuge of a closeknit community.

In the spring of 1900, Jim went to see Andrew Murdoch. He had borrowed money from Andrew to buy the swamp lot across the creek, and now there was plenty in the bank to make the final payment, for the last of the black-cherry logs had gone out during the winter.

Andrew's house was almost hidden now behind the maples grown tall and approaching maturity, their branches thick and freshly green with the new leaves of spring. The brick of the house had mellowed, stained here and there by weather, and the paint of the woodwork was chipped a little to a genteel shabbiness. The house spoke of security, of modest wealth acquired, not in sudden brash vulgarity, but patiently, slowly, keeping its proper place, always a servant, never a master.

The maid was old, but serene in black and white, mellowed like the house by long years of service. "Ah, Mr. McGregor, step in please, what a pleasure to see you. The master is in his office if you will just go back. He does not get about much now, but he will be happy to talk to you. He speaks often of you and your wife."

Andrew rose painfully, the long body bent over, his hair white. "Ah, Jim, I had intended to get out to see you but my intentions aren't always carried out now. Sit down, my boy; we'll have a drink together."

Jim shook his old friend's hand warmly. "I'm afraid `boy' is not the word any longer, Andrew. We lost the boy, you and I, while chopping back in the woods some place. The boy was a little in awe of you, Mr. Murdoch; now he is proud to call you Andrew and be your friend."

"True enough, Jim, but you will always be a boy to me, and Janet like a daughter. Why we have a relationship that is so easy and so happy on both sides I do not know. I would give a great deal to be friends with my sons, who are about your age, Jim, but something always gets in the way. I failed somewhere. They respect me, but they do not love me, and now I cannot reach out to them or say that I long for the chance to love them and to feel my grandchildren close to me. The time for that went by when I was busy with affairs; now it is too late."

The maid brought the brandy and the large goblets on a silver tray. They sat quietly. The old man had slipped into the past in his thoughts and Jim hesitated, trying to find words of comfort that would not come. Some aspects of his own life came to mind.

"You are not alone in that way, Andrew. We lack something, we Scots people. It happens over and over. I did not love my father and I fear my John does not love me. We are afraid even to use the word `love' in the family, yet when you and I sit here together we talk of love unashamed; we are affectionate; we talk openly without embarrassment. I respect you, Andrew. I'm fond of you and I know you feel the same for me. Why we should not feel this for our sons and tell them so, I do not understand. Janet says it is just our damned Scottishness. It may well be so, for she is very often right about that sort of thing."

"What about your girl, Jim? I have not seen her for a time."

"Christine has been teaching. We see her in the holidays, of course, but little at other times. If I read the signs right she will be married soon and will live in the west. That means a separation, but we are happy for her. It is John I am worried about, Andrew. He goes along day to day on the farm, working with me, but he does not seem happy. We talk very little and I do not know what to say to him. It is almost as if he were afraid of me. He talks to his mother, but not to me."

"My sons are much the same. They work in the city. They are doing well enough, but neither would stay with me in the business. I cannot leave it to them, for they know nothing about the operation. It will be left for Ben McAdam to run, and he has no training for the paperwork and is old now, too. We expect things to go on the same way forever, Jim, but there is always a day of reckoning, and it comes sooner than we think. But let me give you a bit more of the cheer, my boy, for so I will call you today. It's a smooth, friendly brew this. Let us put gloom aside and enjoy it. You have the money for the swamp lot, you say. Had you thought of expanding more? There's always money in the, kitty, you know."

Jim had expected this question, and he smiled at his old friend, who always perked up, whatever his spirits, when a business deal seemed in the offing.

"I'll stay put with what I have, Andrew. That's three hundred acres, though I plan to do little with the swamp lot. There's pine on it and lots of cedar rails and posts. It will pay its way. But to be truthful I have become a dog in the manger; I don't want anyone else to buy the place and get ideas about dredging that creek. I love that bit of water. I hear it chuckling away every night as I go to sleep. We have cleared the back of the west lot, but the front is too hilly; I'm leaving it in bush. People will be short enough of lumber soon, the way they keep slashing and burning."

"True enough, and some of what they clear is of little value. But then, if people were all as shrewd as you and I, Jim, we would not have prospered as we have."

"That is a good way to put it, and I thank you for including me. With your permission, Andrew, and if you will join me, I will drink another dram to our success and then I must go."

Andrew died three months later. Jim called to look for the last time on the white, serene face of his friend. He shook hands with the sons, who looked blankly grave and spoke in hushed tones. It seemed that he himself should have been standing there and greeting, for Andrew's sake, these strangers.

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