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The McGregors
Working Together

It was the first time that Janet had been at Jim's home. She looked about her, shocked by the stark bareness of the place. There was an uncompromising harshness that accepted no ornament, no bit of bright colour, no relief from things strictly utilitarian. Everything was clean, but it was an oppressive cleanliness that spoke of lye and homemade soap and scrub-brushes. The boards of the floor were a pallid white. The maple flooring had shrunk, leaving cracks between, and even the cracks were clean. The plain kitchen chairs were the same colour as the floor, and they too had been scrubbed smooth.

The McGregors and their guest sat in the common room, which served as a combined kitchen, dining room, and living room. A wainscoting, waist high, had been stained and varnished a dark brown, and above it the plaster had been painted a pale green. White scruffy spots showed through where it was chipped. The ceiling, like the floor, was tongue-and-groove maple, and it, too, had been stained brown like the wainscoting. A washstand had been built into the darkest corner of the room, and a tin basin and water pail sat there. In the pail was a dipper from which anyone drank, with a hint of chewing tobacco clinging to it. The table-top was of wide boards that had also been scrubbed white, and there was no hint of ornament or of fancy turning on the rungs of the chairs or the legs of the table. In fact, the only piece of furniture in the room that gave any hint of comfort was the sofa. It appeared to be homemade, and over its straw mattress was a faded tartan rug worn through in spots.

Jim's younger sister, Elspeth, sat on the couch now, her feet close together in rough men's boots. Her hands, red and rough from all the scrubbing, were folded in her lap, and her hair was pulled smoothly back and arranged in a bun at the back of her head. Her features were pleasant enough but held tightly, as was her whole body, in the tenseness, almost fear, of a wild animal. Jim and Angus also seemed uneasy. Margaret, their mother, sat erect on her chair with an air of weary resignation. She was tired, bone tired, her frail body barely able to cope with the relentless round of pioneer tasks. But she brightened as she chatted with Janet, recalling some far-off memories of a more pleasant life. Rory was the only one completely at ease; grown fat and bald with the years, he yet commanded attention by virtue of his overwhelming self-confidence. He spoke out now. "I see no reason for you buying this place, James. There is room for you and your wife here, and we can buy more land. I have plans to rebuild the barn and put in up-to-date stables. We could handle twice as many cattle. We need you here, James, and Janet can help in the house now that Mother is not well. No need at all to spend money on a new place. Spend it here and we can all live in comfort."

Angus winked at Jim but said nothing. Janet noticed that, as her father spoke, Elspeth's eyes widened in a peculiar expression, whether of fright or anticipation it was hard to say. But then Margaret spoke gently. "I think, Roderick, that Janet and Jim would be best on their own place. A young man has plans and dreams, and though they may come to naught, he is ill-satisfied if he does not attempt them. And Janet will want her own home. It may be but a rough place now, but there is a lifetime ahead." She turned to Janet, who was sitting close by, and smiled, albeit sadly, at her. "I hope the dreams come true, Janet. I cannot say that they have for me, but I am grateful for what I have, for my sons and daughters who will do the things I could not do."

Rory hitched his chair impatiently. "I see that you are against me, woman, as always. And you, James and Angus, sit silent there. There are none in my own home who need me now, who listen to the man who has spent his life in toil for their benefit. The world is full of ingratitude, and we have our share right here in this house." Rory suddenly paused in what had promised to be a long tirade, and turned toward his guest. "But I do not wish my words to sound harsh to you, Janet, for you have been thoughtful towards us all and I can see that you have been gently reared. I could not have wished better for my son, though he is but a foolish lad. You are welcome in my home today, and I hope you will feel so always."

"Thank you, Mr. McGregor." Janet was uneasy, hardly knowing how to reply. She was to meet similar situations later, for in Highland Scottish homes courtesy to the guest, to the stranger, was a must. No matter if the guest was not too well thought of, once inside the door he received the red-carpet treatment, and his welfare was paramount. Lowland Scots, who were more forthright and lacked this Celtic smoothness, tended to distrust and sneer at this.

"Never trust a Hielan'man," they said. "He would as soon stab you in the back as not."

To break the awkward silence, Jim said, "Come for a walk, Janet. We can see much of the place before dark."

They walked silently for a few minutes, each wrapped in their own thoughts. Once outside the house the harshness that had so struck Janet disappeared. The flower beds were full to bursting. Daffodils made a bright showing and wild flowers had been transplanted from the woods to shaded corners of the yard. Violets, lady's-slippers, and wild lilies were in bloom, and there were others that would flower later in the year.

"Elspeth spends a lot of time on flowers," Jim said proudly. "You should see them a month from now."

Some trees had been left between the house and the farm buildings. They were scattered here and there, and had been left by accident. Small enough to be unnoticed when the farm was cleared, they now formed a pleasant little park, a place that would be shaded and restful later when the leaves came out. Every homestead could have been like this if the settlers had been blessed with more foresight, but only a few cared anything for trees. Most considered a tree to be an enemy, a thing to be ruthlessly cut down so that the crops would grow. A man who planted trees, of all things, or shrubs, or even flowers, was a fool. His wife might waste some time that way if she was so inclined; women were excused for foolishness such as this.

The McGregors' barn had been recently erected and was modern for its time. Money that could have been spent on the house had gone to the barn. As they entered, an acrid animal odour met them. It was not unpleasant, for it spoke of warmth and comfort and animal security. In the stalls were three of Angus's horses, and beside them was Jim's driver, Gamey. Gamey rolled his eyes at Janet and thrust out a tentative nose. This woman was known to carry sugar about with her.

"No sugar today," she said, stroking him under his jaw. "You're a spoiled boy."

"I'm thinking of trading Gamey," Jim said. "I want to get a horse a little heavier, one that will drive and work double too. Gamey is absolutely no use double; he thinks he's big stuff, above that sort of thing."

But Janet was adamant. "Oh, Jim, you can't sell Gamey, I couldn't think of it. Why, it seems he was always with us at the happiest times - the times when we got to know each other."

Jim smiled. "Yes, I know, he was a very good chaperone, but we won't need a chaperone on the farm. He'll be a star boarder, Janet." .

"No he won't. I'll get a saddle. I can ride, you know; Daddy taught me. You've never seen me ride."

Jim saw an opening he'd been waiting for, and took it. "You never told me much about your father. He was in the army, wasn't he?"

The answer wasn't as quick in coming as it usually was. "Yes, in the Thirty-second Regiment. They were stationed at London. He died when I was six. Peter doesn't remember him at all. Then when Mother married again and went to England, we stayed on with Grandfather. She was going to send for us but she never did." There was a heavy silence. Jim asked no more.

"Come, we'll go to the house now. Supper will be ready."

When the pair entered the lamp had been lit and the shadows it cast softened the bareness of the room. A good linen cloth was spread on the table, and the dishes, heavy and plain but not unattractive, did not seem out of place. There was only simple fare: pieces of yellow cheese cut in squares were arranged on two plates, one at each end of the table, and two small plates of butter, richly golden from the fresh dandelions, sat beside the cheese. A cup of milk was at each place, and a loaf of bread sat on a board in front of Rory's place at the head of the table with a sharp knife beside it. In front of Margaret, who sat at the other end of the table, was a large dish of preserved fruit and a pile of fruit dishes. The large dish as well as the smaller ones was of imitation cut glass and sparkled in the lamplight. They had been brought out for Janet's benefit.

Rory commenced with a sonorous grace. He enjoyed saying grace because his booming voice suited the dignity of the words. He knew that no archbishop could have done better. Then he cut thick slices of bread and passed them on the end of his knife until all were served. The cheese was eaten along with the bread and the milk and a little salt. The salt dish, shaped like a glass chicken, was handed around, and everyone lifted a small amount to their plates with a table knife. After the bread and cheese they had tea, drunk as hot as possible and well sweetened. Margaret served the fruit in generous helpings, and Elspeth brought a plate of scones to the table. The stewed fruit was the main dish of the meal, for, quite simply, supper meant "something to sup". Its very simplicity added to its appeal, and Janet ate with enjoyment, as they all did. Afterwards the tenseness faded away and everyone talked with more freedom. Angus began to play his violin and Elspeth accompanied him with a mouth organ. All constraint disappeared, for the family was musical, and the sound of Scottish airs rose wild and free. Jim sat close to Janet and they held hands. When the evening ended they were all closer.

They were married quietly. "Grandfather wanted us to have a lot of guests," Janet said, "but he simply can't afford it. He has this big house and little else."

They went on a lake boat to Detroit for a honeymoon. Jim moved in a daze. He forgot to be awkward with strange company and in strange places because of the miracle that moved beside him, that even slept in his arms at night. And Janet found herself wondering at his childish worship, his seemingly complete subjection to her and yet the fierce sureness with which he took her when the time came. One lazy day melted into the next as they saw strange places and strange sights moving by as in a dream in which they themselves were the only things that mattered. Their oneness seemed a wonder that had never happened before. .

The journey from Goderich to the Scots settlement in Bruce took a leisurely six hours. Jim and Janet did not follow the lakeshore this time, for there were inland roads now. Instead, they drove through the hamlets: Carlow, Dungannon, Belfast. The buggy was loaded heavily; everything they could possibly take was tied on somewhere. Poor Gamey laboured and groaned; he could not move with his usual stylish high-stepping gait and he disapproved of the actions of the pair in the buggy. They did not seem in a hurry to get anywhere; they laughed a great deal and indulged in undignified scuffles. They stopped beside a creek and had lunch while he had his hay and oats and then disappeared along the creek bank for a time, leaving him to stamp and switch at the flies. Only at the approach of dusk did they assume any real desire to finish the trip before night.

After some days spent at Jim's home they went on to the farm. In the meantime Jim had bought a team and wagon. He had also made a deal with Frederick Bauman by which he received a quantity of lumber to be paid for by a future delivery of logs. When they arrived there was a large pile of dressed pine beside the cabin, enough for a floor and a ceiling.

Jim helped his perfectly agile young wife from the buggy and pointed to the pile of wood. "I got pine, Janet, though maple is cheaper, because you are going to put this floor down and maple is just too hard for you to nail."

"That was kind of you." Janet was somewhat startled and her voice was frosty. "I'm sure I'll have a lot of fun nailing pine."

But Jim didn't take offence. "Well, you wanted to help and that is one very good way. See, I have the stringers in place and a hole dug for a cellar."

The cellar was about six feet every way and lined with rough boards. Cedar logs hewn flat on top were stretched across the room. After they had put some of the things from the wagon into the safety of the cabin, Jim showed Janet how to start, how to nail so that the nails didn't show and how to squeeze warped boards with a bar to keep the floor tight. They worked together for a time and then Jim got up, stretched, and looked down at his wife. 

"I have to start getting logs out for the barn. You're doing well, just take your time."

Four hours later he returned to find Janet swinging back and forth in the rocking chair. She did not greet him as cheerfully as usual; in fact she did not speak at all. A reasonable portion of the floor had been laid. He inspected the floor.

"You did fine, a few cracks but not bad, not bad at all." Still she said nothing and then he saw the bandaged thumb. "Oh, hit the hammer with your thumb, eh? Don't mind, all carpenters do that. Does it hurt bad?"

She snapped at him, "I don't mind the hurt so much, it was the words."

"Words, what words?"

"The words I learned from you, I didn't know I even knew such horrible words, let alone that I would say them."

"Well, all carpenters have to know the words; you are probably learning very fast. Come on, honey, let's get some supper."

"Don't honey me, just be glad I don't take the hammer to you."

So Jim made some sandwiches and some tea and brought their supper on two pieces of board in place of trays. He set one tray on his silent wife's lap and turned up a block of wood and sat on that directly in front of her with his tray. They ate in silence. Janet began to snuffle and then to laugh and then broke down crying.

"Oh, Jim, I'm such a poor sport! You get hurt often and you say nothing, but it isn't just the little hurt. I'm afraid, afraid of what this life will do to me. I see a lot of things ahead and I don't want to fail you, but I may."

He picked her up and carried her to the bed, then held her in his arms until the crying stopped.

The days went past in blurred succession and May faded into June. Many things got done and many more were "left for next year". The young couple's future comfort depended on much that had to be done immediately: a garden had to be planted in May or not much could be expected of it; the cleared land had to be worked and planted in May. And in the meantime there was only a rough shelter for Gamey and the team, and the buggy, along with Jim's flashy cutter, had to sit out in the weather. Angus had given them a cow, but there were no fences and the cow had to be tethered.

They both worked from the early spring dawn to the late dusk, an impossible task except for the young and the strong. They were fired by a sort of craze to create, to build something where nothing had been. It was not a wish for wealth or possessions but more a nest-building instinct, and so intent did they become on achieving a little here, a little there, on gaining a few days in the race with time, that work and sweat meant nothing. The kinks worked out of sore muscles and they reached a physical fitness that brought its own reward. Janet finished the flooring and tackled the ceiling, a much more difficult task. It went well.

Jim praised her: "Very nice job, almost as good as I could have done." Janet had come a long way since the first day and was able to reply with her usual spirit. "No almost about it. I don't see why men make such a big thing of carpenter work. It's just like making a dress. And speaking of dress, when are you going for my sewing machine and the furniture and all the rest?"

Jim leaned against the wall as he watched her straighten up and stretch.

"Could go any time. Bauman wants me to take a load of lumber to Goderich. We could pick up the things on the way home and make some cash out of the trip. There isn't too much of that around here right now."

They left Gamey and the cow with a neighbour and set out early. The lumber was loaded on the wagon and they were perched high on top of the load, which was secured by a chain. The spring seat had been removed from the wagon box and sat precariously on top of the lumber, wired to the chain. A sack stuffed with dry beaver grass was on the seat, a concession to comfort and the beginning of the so-called physical and moral weakening of each succeeding generation that the early settlers complained about; to hear them tell it later they would have scorned both the spring seat and the sack! Janet wore a sunbonnet and Jim a wide felt hat with a flat crown. It was a tiresome, bumpy ride, but after the days spent in the seclusion of the farm it was like a holiday.

There was more land cleared now than not. Houses of brick and frame and sometimes stone were replacing the log cabins that sat sullenly near by, now serving as pig-pens or chicken houses. The new timber-frame barns stood awkwardly, the lumber still fresh and raw. Rail fences lined the roads and the fields, with enough cedar in them to have built another set of buildings. A store, a blacksmith shop, a chopping mill, and a tavern, sometimes a school or a church and a few houses, made a hamlet. Some were destined to grow into villages, but most faded away. A good deal of slow-moving traffic used these roads because no railroad served this district, or ever would. Heavily loaded wagons crawled back and forth in the area between Kincardine and Goderich.

Jim stopped at Dungannon, the halfway point. Here they fed and watered the horses and had their own noon meal at Black's Hotel. The hotel was well known for its good service and its clean, wholesome food. It was appreciated by travellers, for by no means every tavern was up to this standard. Many were only places to feed and water horses and sell not-so-good whiskey. The sun was just disappearing and the lake was a fading blue as the team laboured up the long hill into Goderich. Unused to so much road travel, the horses were footsore and the two passengers exhausted.

A day was spent resting. The following day Janet discovered that there was a draft on an English bank waiting for her. She ran out to the buggy where Jim sat waiting.

"Look Jim, twenty pounds! I'm going shopping." She bought warm clothing for the winter still far ahead, some cooking utensils, and a saddle for Gamey. "No more walking for Janet. That lazy boy will earn his keep."

Jim bought a crosscut saw of a new design, the teeth arranged for faster cutting, and a saw set and files. When Janet commented on the files Jim explained, "I'm planning to get old Sandy Fraser to show me how he sharpens saws. Nobody can make a saw cut like Sandy can."

"Are you sure he'll be so eager to show you?"

"When he sees the bottle of whiskey your grandfather gave me he will. It's imported right from Bonny Scotland."

The wagon was almost overloaded for the return trip. As they were putting the finishing touches to the load, Janet explained why. "Grandfather wanted to give me anything I even looked at. He can't picture a place like our cabin. I took only the things that are useful. The pictures and the trinkets can wait until later. Can we plaster the walls, Jim?"

"Only needs some lime. We have the sand, and Angus has some trowels and a sieve."

"Could I do the plastering?"

Jim paused and looked at her.

"You could, but think of your hands, Janet, your beautiful hands. They are rough already. I had hoped to care for you better."

She looked at him, surprised, thinking at first that he was joking. Then she caught the fleeting look of small-boy adoration, the worship of the honeymoon days.

"Oh, Jim, I want to stay young and beautiful for you. You think I'm so good and fine. I'm not, you know; no one else ever thought so. I have to grow old and I won't be pretty any more, but maybe if you stay as blind as you are now, you will never know the difference!"

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