|1948||Sarah Binks||Paul Hierbert|
|1951||The Roving I||Eric Nicol|
|1962||Jake and the Kid |
"The Princess and the Wild Ones"
|W. O. Mitchell|
|1994||The Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast||Bill Richardson|
Excerpt from “Top ten reasons to live in Manitoba”
- Amusing town names like “Flin Flon” and “Winnipeg.”
- The only province to ever violently rebel against the federal government.
- You can be an Easterner or Westerner, depending on your mood.
- Because of your license plate you are still “friendly” even when you cut someone off.
From Shakespeare’s “England, my England,” to a Saskatchewan Wheat farm may seem like a far cry. But that same patriotism, that same confidence and joy in his native land which is the heritage of all poets, is also Sarah’s. And when she cries out in a sudden awareness of her own gumbo stretch, “The Farmer is King!” or when she sings in full throat “The Song of the Chore,” or hymns the joy of “Spreading Time,” or discusses with deep understanding but with impersonal detachment as in “To My Father, Jacob Binks, “ the fine economic adjustment between the farmer and the cut-worm, we know that she speaks for the Canadian West in the language of all poets at all times. It is this which has given her the high place in the world of literature and in the hearts of her countrymen.
But there is so much more to Sarah Binks than being the Laureate of Saskatchewan. Sarah was not only the expression of her day and age, she was also the product of her immediate environment. She was the product of her friends, of her books and of the little incidents which shaped her life. She was the product of the Grade School, of her neighbours, of Mathilda Schwantzhacker, of Ole the hired man, of her grandfather the philosophical herbalist, of William Greenglow who taught her Geology, of Henry Welkin who took her to Regina. From all of these Sarah emerges as a character, as a personality and above all, as a woman.
From childhood and early life
Little remains of the old homestead. The house itself has been torn down by souvenir hunters, one of the barns leans drunkenly and the other is about to fall. Gophers play on the site of the little corral where Sarah kept the calf, wild roses grow where once were beans and potatoes. In the coulee, now dry, that ran behind the house, a meadowlark has built its nest. It may have been that Sarah, with the prophetic eye of the poetess, visualized this scene when, in her later years, she wrote those famous lines, now inscribed in bronze over the gateway of St. Midget’s, entitled “Ode to a Deserted Farm”:
How changed and bleak the meadows lie
And overgrown with hay,
The fields of oats and barley
Where the binder twined its way!
With doors ajar the cottage stands
Deserted on the hill -
No welcome bark, no thudding hoof,
And the voice of the pig is still
The west was still West in the days when Jacob and Agathea Binks first homesteaded the N.E. Sec. 37, Township 21, R.R. 9, W. To the east lay Oak Bluff, the end of the steel. To the west stretched the boundless prairies of the North West Territories, in which, to quote Sarah’s own words, “The hand of man hath never trod.” Here was the home of the coyote and the gopher, the antelope still flaunted his lack of tail to the western wind, and the pensive mosquito wandered unafraid. A region rich in historical interests and traditions, of tales of Indian fights with their squaws, of squaws with the Mounted Police. Willows was then Wallows, and the very name, Oak Bluff, was derived from an old Indian word, or combination of words, indicating that at that spot the white man had been frightened or, to use the Indian term, “bluffed” at a conference between Chief Buffalo Chip and Colonel MacSquemish, the outcome being described by the chief in Cree dialect as being “oke,” meaning very good, or excellent...
Professor R. Ambush has called attention to the fact that the date of April 1st bears the entry “caff,” and that this refers to the date on which Sarah’s pet calf was born and that those poignant lines of “Calf” could not have been written before this date and were probably written soon after since it had not yet received a name:
Oh calf, that gambolled by my door
Who made me rich who now am poor,
That licked my hand with milk bespread,
Oh calf, calf! Art dead, art dead?
Oh calf, I sit and languish, calf,
With sombre face, I cannot laugh,
Can I forget thy playful bunts?
Oh calf, calf, that loved me once!
With mildewed optics, deathlike, still,
My nights are damp, my days are chill,
I weep again with doleful sniff,
Oh, calf, calf, so dead. So stiff.
...But if Sarah’s formal education was neglected, if her acquaintance with the great authors was a mere nodding acquaintance, she learned all the more from the big school of nature. Nature to her was something alive, and the life of the farm, wild as well as domestic, acquired in her eyes a character and a personality. The lowly blade of grass and the stately horse were equally objects of her sympathetic speculations. She understood the grasshoppers and held them in contempt, whereas the gophers, whose inclusion in the primordial curse had, according to Jacob Binks, been omitted only through some oversight of the part of the Creator, were to Sarah a constant source of humorous amusement. For the perennial calf she had a womanly affection, and its stupidity enthralled her. She was keenly aware of sky and field. She loved the hot sunlight of the afternoon and the feel of the wind on her cheek. One need only read “My Garden” and “The Bug” to realize how deep is Sarah’s sympathetic understanding of nature.
A little blade of grass I see,
Its banner waving wild and free,
And I wonder if in time to come
‘Twill be a great big onion;
We cannot tell, we do not know,
For oft we reap and didn’t sow;
We plant the hairy coconut,
With hope serene and sturdy—but
We cannot tell, for who can say,
We plant the oats and reap the hay,
We sow the apple, reap the worm,
We tread the worm and reap the turn:
Too much, too much for us this thought,
With much too much exertion fraught;
In faith we get the garden dug—
And what do we reap—we reap the bug,
In goodly faith we plant the seed,
Tomorrow morn we reap the weed.
In a little nook, a nooklet,
There beside a babbling brooklet,
Sits a little bug, a beetle,
Browsing in a little volume,
Reading in a brand new booklet,
Studying the spinal column,
Learning where to put his needle,
Get me with his little hooklet.
The Princess and the Wild Ones
WHEN Miss Henchbaw got up and stood there with her hands folded across her stomach, she had her mouth sort of turned up uat the corners, like when she’s got something to tell us and it’s good. I was looking clear across the room at Lazarus Lefthand. He‘s in the Grade Ones. We only got four of them. Lazarus’ hair is very black and it puts you in mind of those chrysanthemums. He is the only Indian kid we got in Rabbit Hill School.
Miss Henchbaw she looked down at us; her grey hair, that’s piled up like those round loaves of bread, was under the writing on the board:
THE GIRL PLAYS WITH THE DOG.IT IS FUN TO PLAY.
“Children!” Her voice all the time goes up at the end. “There will be a half holiday. Mr. MacTaggart has spoken to the school board and we’ve decided – they think it would be nice if the girls could wear white dresses with red and blue sashes. The school board are supplying the flags. They’d like the Grade Five choir to open with ‘O Canada’.” She stared at Stevie Kiziw twisting his ruler on his compass. “Steve!”
Steve’s ruler clattered on the desk.z
“Now – just the first verse. And Mr. MacTaggart says that whether or not the Princess gets off the train - if she only steps out onto the-“z
“Caboose,” Stevie said.z
“Observation car – he would like a presentation of flowers by one of the school children.”
The kids didn’t make much noise; you could just hear them sort of draw in their breath. Mariel Abercrombie stuck up her hand. She has chops. “Mother still has dahlias and asters and marigolds and golden glow, Miss Henchbaw.”
“That’s nice, Mariel...”
“They’re the last but they’re nice still and there’s enough of them for a bouquet and nobody else in town have their flowers last as long as ours – or come out so soon.”
“Then we can depend on Mariel’s mother for flowers to hand to the Princes...”
“Who’s going to hand them to her?” That was LaPrelle Rasmussen.
“Oh – Mother – if they were our flowers I think Mother would expect me to hand them to the Princess...” faltered Mariel.
“It’s quite an honour to have your flowers given, Mariel. I think for the next few weeks we’ll keep a close record – attendance – standing in arithmetic and writing and reading. The one who has the highest average – I think as a reward that child would be the proper one to hand the bouquet to the Princess on the station platform.”
When I got home after four, Jake was pumping water into the stock trough. Jake’s our hired man that helps Ma and me farm our farm. Moses Lefthand was with him. That’s Lazarus’ father. Moses is Blackfoot but he doesn’t live on a reserve. He quit being an Indian and he took out his citizenship papers so he could vote and go in the beer parlour if he felt like it. He can read and write like a white man.
First thing he said, he asked me how Lazarus was doing in school and I said fine.
“First day he didn’t do good.” Moses doesn’t wear braids; his hair is cut short so it’s kind of spiky.
“First day none of the Grade Ones do so good, Mr. Lefthand.”
“Yeah,” Moses said. “But they don’t climb under the desk and stay there.”
“Well – a lot of ‘em bawl,” I said. “Lazarus didn’t bawl.”
“Damn right he didn’t,” Moses said. I was wondering if all Indians are built long and lean like Moses. He has a real deep voice. It is so deep it kind of buzzes against your chest. “All these kids gonna be at the depot for the royal train?”
I said they were and Jake let go the pump handle. Jake is built kind of like an Indian too when you think of it. He says that’s from back-breaking work all his life from the time he kicked off the dew till the bed springs twanged at night. “Sure gonna be some reception,” he said. “Crocus folks ain’t had a hell of a lot to do with royalty, but they’re sure goin’ after her in high gear.”
Moses had hold of a twig and he was sort of drawing in the ground with the end of it. Without looking up he said a funny thing. He said, “My folks – they was kings.”
“Well now,” Jake said.
“Chiefs – same thing. Signed the Blackfoot Crossin’ Treaty. My uncle – him an’ the Queen. She was Queen Victoria.”
“That’s nice,” Jake said. “You oughta be down there when the royal train rolls through.”
“They asked us. Reception committee. Wanted us to wear feathers – Mrs. Lefthand to carry Lazarus in a yo-kay-bo.”
“Ain’t what?” Jake asked.
“We’ll dress proper – like Canadian citizens. Kid’s too big to go in a yo-kay-bo on his ma’s back anyways. I’m not paintin’ myself. I’m not a spectacle. We don’t wear moccasins no more. So they better get some Indians for that kinda stuff. Beads. Feathers. Porcupine quills. Green paint. That kinda stuff.”
“M-hhmmm,” Jake said.
“The Lefthands are Canadian just like other people. One hundred per cent altogether Canadian. We quit. They better get real Indians.”
When Moses had left and Jake was sitting on a stool stripping Mary, in the barn, I asked him whether he figured the Prince and Princess would be going C.P. or C.N. He said both.
“I wonder what their train will be like, Jake?”
“They ain’t goin’ day coach, Kid.”
“Bring it over on the boat with ‘em?”
“Oh no. Probably take the Superintendent the railroad’s special coach – right now they probably got her in the shops – paintin’ her purple...” He quit.
Jake looked up at me with his head against Mary’s flank. “Royal colour. Purple. Superintendent the railroad – his coach’d already be purple likely. They’ll line her with red velvet – gold-plate the hot- an’ cold-water taps.”
“Paint a coat of arms on the caboose.”
“Yeah.” The milk started singing in the pail again. “They’ll be eating oysters an’ lobster an’ Winnipeg goldeye. Her an’ alla their ladies-in-waitin’.”
“Gee, Jake – I can hardly wait!”
I guess everybody was excited. In town it was all folks talked about – in the post office waiting for their mail – over at Malleable Brown’s – MacTaggart’s Trading Company – Repeat Golightly’s Barber Shop. When Jake and me dropped in at Repeat’s and Jake was stretched out in the chair, Repeat said: “Talk – hearin’ lots of talk about the royal visit.” He left off stropping the razor. “Ought to do somethin’ about those blackheads there, Jake.”
“Blow dirt – just blow dirt, Repeat.”
“Enlarges the pores. Raises aitch with the pores. Lot of talk about this visit.” He kind of lowered his voice the way he does and leaned over Jake. “Some folks not showin’ the proper spirit.”
“No!” Jake started to sit up.
“Hold still there. Can’t shave a movin’ object.” Repeat pushed him back. “Not our own, mind you – not Crocus folks. Foreign element. Conception. Conception district. Few been in the shop.”
“But what did they...”
“Not making a single preparation. Wonderful thing – royalty. I say royalty’s a wond-“
“Saskatchewan’s one the jools.” Repeat wiped off a fluff of lather onto the paper on Jake’s chest. “You could say she was one of the jools.”
“Gettin’ her down real fine when you come to towns like Crocus and Conception, aren’t you, Repeat?”
“Facet. One the facets one the jools.”
“Way a jool is cut. Facets. Faces, thousand faces. Facets.” Repeat pumped Jake up straight. “Crocus is one of the facets in one the jools – set in the crown the Empire. Fifty cents. That’ll be fifty cents, Jake.”
Jake and me dropped in at Malleable Brown’s and the bellows going hawgh – hawgh. Malleable said he was all set for the royal visit. He said it was real nice and charming of the royal couple to save their visit till after harvest was over. While we walked over to MacTaggart’s Trading Company we passed the Credit Union hall and heard the Crocus Band practisin’ “Rule Britannia” under Mr. Tucker. I said to Jake it sounded fine and he said it sounded more like guerrilla warfare. When we got into MacTaggart’s store, Mayor MacTaggart said:
“Wheels are rollin’. Set the machin’ry in motion. I.O.D.E. has been alerted. Women’s Auxiliaries all the churches. Rot’ry – Activarians – Junior C. of C. Real burden the reception’s being carried by the Crocus Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee.”
“Just the official title,” Mr. MacTaggart explained to Jake. “Already set up. For the occasion we‘ve changed the purpose. Hig Wheeler’s group has switched from Shelter and First Aid to decoration. Erecting an arch over at the depot covered with wheat and oats and flax and barley bundles. Sign in coloured lights – not like some communities.”
“You mean Conception,” Jake said.
“Aren’t lifting a finger. No civic pride. We live up to our responsibilities. Homer Toovey – MacDougall Implement – supplying DDT.”
“What’s the aitch for!”
“Stockyards and loading platforms. C’rrals – swamping them out – spraying them so’s there won’t be flies ner smells.”
“That’s nice,” Jake said.
“Got a couple of mounties from Brokenshell,” Mr. MacTaggart said, “that can ride. Dress uniform. United Church choir’s rolling. Flags – bunting –“
"Looks like one the facets one the jools is gonna twinkle.”
“Manner of speakin’, Mac. What time of day does this royal train roll through?”
“Yeh – I know – what time?”
“Why – say – come to think of it – I’m in the dark about that, Jake. Jus’ went along thinking of the regular trains – this one’s special. We’ll slip over to the depot. Way-freight Brown’ll know.”
Over at the depot when Mr. Brown came to the wicket, Mr. McTaggart asked him what time the royal train was stopping in Crocus.
“They are flyin’ high over the grey Atlantic,” Mr. Brown started off the way he talks like those C.P.R. travel folders. “In a luxuriously appointed strato-cruiser – high above the storms an’ tempests-“
“Yeh – I know,” Mr. McTaggart cut in, “but what we were interested in-“
“Down to the broad St. Lawrence, past quaint habitat Quebec to the hist’ried city of Montreal-“
“Way-freight,” Jake said.
“Through the garden the Dominion – Niagara peninsula – North shore mighty Superior where green-clad pines stand their sentinel watch.”
“How – long – are – they – stopping – off – here?” Mr. MacTaggart said each word clear and slow.
Way-freight Brown looked kind of startled. “They aren’t.”
“Take the Saskatchewan prairies faster’n a greased gopher through a thirty-six-inch thrashin’ machine. Eager to catch their first glimpse of the soft swellin’ beauty the Alberta foothills.”
“They aren’t even stoppin’!”
“Regina – Moose Jaw – not here,” said Mr. Brown. “Orders.”
“Then all this preparation, all this work – it’s been useless.”
Jake said, “Couldn’t you – uh – drop a line to the Superintendent the railroad, Way-freight?”
“Jake,” Mr. Brown sighed, “the Superintendent this railroad doesn’t even know I’m breathing in Crocus. When they tell me that train’s takin’ on water down the line at Conception-“
"Seven minutes – at Conception – got to take on water.”
“You’ll have to get it changed,” Mr. MacTaggart said.
“Mac – nothing’s going to get changed. Nobody tampers with this railroad.”
“But they could change-“
“If you’re looking for your true royalty in North America,” Mr. Brown said, “you look at the railroad. There is aristocracy. If you wanta see a royal edict.” He waved a sheaf of paper at Jake and Mr. MacTaggart. “Just you take a look at a railway time schedule.”
Mr. MacTaggart took it pretty hard. Me and Jake went right along with him whilst he called the town council together. He explained to them how the royal train wasn’t even stopping at Crocus – how she was stopping seven minutes to take on water at Conception that hadn’t even lifted a finger to a royal welcome. All aitch broke lose and Mr. MacTaggart rapped the table with his gavel. Mr. Tucker that leads the band said they’d have to bring pressure to bear; he said it wasn’t any use getting up a petition – have to write to our pressure groups. Malleable Brown asked what were pressure groups.
“When you want something, Malleable,” Mr. MacTaggart said, “you work on pressure groups.”
“How do you start it rollin’ then?” Malleable asked. “We got any pressure groups here in Crocus?”
Mr. MacTaggart said they weren’t pressure groups exactly but they’d do: Rotary, Activarians, South Crocus Homemakers, I.O.D.E. Whole meeting kind of blew up with councillors shouting where to send letters to – asking for the royal train to take on water at Crocus instead of Conception: provincial and federal members – Minister Education – Minister Agriculture – Minister Lands and Mines.|
"Don’t stop at Ottawa!” Mr. Tucker yelled. “Send ‘em to England!”
“Wouldn’t even hurt to send one to Prime Minister England,” Malleable shouted.
“Sure,” Merton Abercrombie jumped up. “To the Queen - let I.O.D.E. do that one. Tell ‘em to remind her about that quilt!”
“What quilt?” said Malleable Brown.
Over Mr. MacTaggart’s gavel banging, Mr. Abercrombie shouted, “One she sold to the I.O.D.E.”
“She didn’t sell any quilt to the I.O.D.E.”
“Sure she did!”
“It was a rug she hooked. Couple million dollars!”
“All right – remind her that rug when they write!”
When Jake and me were riding back to the farm, I asked Jake if he thought she’d work or not. Jake said he didn’t know, but they’d sure have to pay attention to those letters to railroad officials, cabinet ministers, Prime Minister. Couldn’t ignore the South Crocus Homemakers, Activarians, Young C.C.F. Club, Crocus Caledonian Society of Knock-Out Curlers. Jake he figured they might have a fifty-fifty chance.
But Mr. MacTaggart wasn’t the only one having trouble. Out at Rabbit Hill School Mariel Abercrombie and Cora Swengel tied for being the kid that would hand the flowers to the Princess. Miss Henchbaw said all right then we’ll have a vote to see who it’ll be. Cora Swengel won. Mariel burst out crying. She said her mother wouldn’t come across with the flowers. Miss Henchbaw said she thought she would and Mariel cried worse so Miss Henchbaw got mad and she said she didn’t like Mariel’s attitude and Mariel said she didn’t care and she ran out into the cloakroom. I told Jake and Moses Lefthand about it when I got home.
“Don’t matter aitch of a lot now,” Jake said. “Don’t even know if the train’s stoppin’.”
“Why didn’t they pick my kid Lazarus?” Moses said.
“S’posed to be the one with the high av’rage,” I told him. “Grade ones weren’t in on it.”
“Why not?” Moses said.
“My kid ain’t little. He could hand flowers to somebody. He could do it.”
“I guess she figgered it should be a older kid, Moses,” Jake said.
“My kid’s a Canadian kid,” Moses said kind of stubborn. “My kid’s a good size for his age.”
“For his age ... yeah ... but...”
“She think he’s little?” Moses turned to me.
“Search me, Moses. She wants one of the older kids.”
“What’s the difference?” Jake said. “The whole thing’s all tangled up in the britchin’ now.”
“All the same,” Moses said stubborn, “I’m gonna see this teacher. I got to find out about them Grade Ones where Lazarus is.” He hitched up his Boss Of the Range pants. “Just in case.”
It was a week later and folks still didn’t know whether the Princess would even stop at Crocus, that Moses came to Rabbit Hill School. It was after four and I was cleaning off the blackboards.
He walked right up to her desk. She said “Hello” and Moses said:
“He doin’ what you say?”
“Oh – yes – Mr. Lefthand. Lazarus is doing very well.”
“Like the other kids?”
“He was a little shy at first...”
“Now – about these flowers.”
“Flowers? I don’t...”
“These Princess flowers. What you gonna do for the Grade Ones without flowers?”
“Oh – that. We had a little misunderstanding and...”
“I’d like my kid to do this.”
“Oh,” Miss Henchbaw said. “Oh.”
“You forgot all about the Grade Ones when you picked your kid,” Moses said and he stared down at her. “And my kid.”
“Well, no. We have to be fair about it. All the children would love to do it. Their parents would...”
“He ain’t small.”
"I beg your pardon.”
“Six years old. He’s the right size for that. You better use a Grade One kid. It would be nice if you used Lazarus.”
“Oh.” Miss Henchbaw cleared her throat. “We – we can’t change our plans now, Mr. Leftand. It wouldn’t be – uh –fair. Just – we try to run the classrooms in a democratic way.”
“You do this democratic?”
“I think I did.”
“Those Grade Ones – did they vote?”
“Why – well – they’re so small...”
“Miss Henchbaw – I’m sorry you forgot all about those little Grade Ones.”
“I suppose I...”
“Poor little Grade One,” Moses said.
“There are only four of them.”
“You know what that is?” Moses leaned over her desk. “They got on rights, your little Grade Ones. Minors. Just little minor group in your school, huh?” Miss Henchbaw didn’t say anything. “Poor little Grade Ones,” Moses said sad. “Can’t give flowers. Can’t take a crack at it. Poor little minor Grade Ones group.”
“There are no minority groups in my school, Mr. Lefthand!” She just cracked it out.
“I – may have seemed – to overlook – what would you suggest, Mr. Lefthand?”
“This way. Give ‘em each a nickel. Then they flip this nickel. Odd Grade One he gives the flowers.”
“And what about the twos and threes and fours and the rest of the school?”
“Oh – I didn’t think of that.”
“Then your oversight” – Miss Henchbaw got up – “is much worse than mine, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Moses said. “Yeah.”
I didn’t hear what else they said because Miss Henchbaw noticed me and she said I better be going home.
“Sure a mess,” Jake said. “Wranglin’ about who’s gonna give her flowers when they don’t even know she’s gonna stop off long enough to take ‘em.”
Wonder how the council made out with those letters, Jake?”
“We’ll find out, Kid. Cream can’s full. You an’ me’ll see Mac when we go into town this afternoon.”
Mr. MacTaggart didn’t look so cheerful. “Just going over to Way-freight’s now,” he told us. “See if there’s any developments.”
Jake and me went with him. Way-freight Brown looked up when we came in. He had that green eyeshade on whilst he sat up at the telegraph key.
“We just took a dangle over,” Mr. MacTaggart said. “See if there was any-“
Way-freight cleared his throat. He looked kind of dazed. “First time in forty-two years’ experience with this railroad – gentlemen – seen everything.”
“That royal train,” Mr. MacTaggart began.
“Just before you stepped through that door.” Mr. Brown kind of brushed at his forehead, like he had a cobweb tickling it or something. “Came through. Been a change.”
“Orders – slight change in orders.”
“Concernin’ takin’ on water at Conception,” Mr. MacTaggart prodded him.
“The royal train,” Way-freight’s voice took a kind of a skip and a jump, “trailin’ her snowy plume of steam an’ smoke across the wavin’ fields of golden grain – takes on her water – uh – at Crocus.” He quit and you could hear the telegraph key going to beat anything. “For this she will require – not the usual seven minutes – but eleven.”
Everything got rolling; the band started practising again in the Credit Union Hall; they finished up the arch at the depot. The day of the royal visit folks came streaming into town from all over Crocus district – from Brokenshell and Macoun and Ogema and Tiger Lily and Wrist Hills. We drove into town with Baldy and Queen and the democrat and the Lefthands rode with us. Folks came in their card and wagons jamming the whole down town.
Mrs. Lefthand and Lazarus they just sat in the democrat not saying anything. “We got to get near the front,” Moses said and he looked down at the newspaper-wrapped parcel Lazarus had on his knee.
“Sure,” said Jake.
And he did. We were right down there next the platform. I could see Mayor MacTaggart’s hand trembling so the paper speech in his hand was shaking as he walked up and down, his lips moving. Then somebody at the east end of the crowd gave out a yell. We heard her whistle.
She wasn’t purple like Jake said. She stood there hissing and tinging whilst she took on water. Mr. Tucker and the band started up “Rule Britannia.” Then I noticed Lazarus Lefthand had taken the paper off his bundle.
They weren’t floppy asters or golden glow or dahlias that won in the flower show. They were buffalo beans he’d picked off of the prairies and Indian paintbrush and brown-eyed Susans. He had them tight in his fist. They were wildflowers.
“All right,” Moses said, real husky. “Me an’ Miss Henchbaw flipped. She lost. You go up there and give her them, Lazarus. When Miss Henchbaw says. Just walk up and hand ‘em. You’re citizen too. Hers. One hundred per cent. You got kings in you.”
He sort of gave Lazarus a push. “If you got to do your nose,” he warned him, “don’t snuff it loud. Use the sleeve. When nobody’s lookin’.”
Little Lazarus, he didn’t curtsey like Cora Swengel when she gave her flowers. When the Princess took Lazarus’ she smiled at him. She smiled at him and smelled his flowers and she said something to the Prince beside her.|
She didn’t smell Cora’s but she smelled Lazarus’ bouquet. The wild ones.
Like many of the creators of North American humour, Eric Nicol made his contribution from the ranks of the journalists. His The Roving I – the 1951 winner – is very largely a reportorial eye. The reader will notice his acute sense of the incongruous scattered through this collection, for Eric Nicol has won the Leacock Medal more often than any other author – in 1951, in 1956 and in 1958.
From The Roving I
From The Roving I
Popular opinion to the contrary, it isn’t always springtime in Paris. The other seasons are autumn, winter and tourist.
I arrived at that even more mystical period between the arrival of the first frost and the turning on of the first heat. Paris hotels, stores and cinemas are heated according to the calendar rather than the cold, and a new ice age could move right down the Champs Elyses without shaking a single concierge’s resolve to hold the coal till mid-November. This is known as la logique francaise, which has done so much for philosophy and so little for chilblains.
I soon discovered that I was not the stuff of which Madame Curies are made. During her student days in Paris, Madame Curie kept warm with little more than a burning desire for knowledge. During the few hours that I spent in an unheated room I found that my desire for knowledge wouldn’t burn worth a damn. This was a considerable disappointment because I had dried it out thoroughly at a Canadian university. I envied the zeal of an American student who had a fireplace in his but was forbidden by hotel regulation to have a fire in it, and who hurried in and out with his briefcase in what impressed everybody as inspired scholasticism, until it was discovered that the briefcase brought in wood and packed out ashes.
I moved into the Maison Canadienne, which had steam radiators. I had never kissed a steam radiator before. Her embrace was perfunctory but its warmth was sheer historical novel. I’ll never forget those first two weeks we had together, the happy gurgle of her pipes, her slight but becoming drool. Then, as I suppose it must to all lovers, there came the morning when I woke up to find that she had turned cold. I’m ashamed to say, I kicked her. That same afternoon I walked in and caught her, stripped, with the plumber. After that things were never quite the same. We lived together, of course, as friends, but my heart was open to the first pair of bedsox that came along.
Worthy and lacklustre as a village parson, the Maison Canadienne is a unit of the vast University City on the rim of Paris. In the intellectual mecca of the City students of all races, creeds and colours come together and establish a common bond of hatred for the cafeteria. (In the cafeteria of La Maison Internationale, for a trifling 60 francs one is served a rare old gymshoe soup, a slice from the tongue of some abnormally huge animal, never identified, and an eggcup brimming with applesauce fortified by core, pips and bits of bark, which one eats with a spoon left over from the excavation of some unknown tunnel. The Maison Canadienne smacks of clean living. Clean living is anathema to any artist. If he gets enough of it it’ll ruin him. You can’t be both Baudelairer and an Eagle Scout. And everybody that comes to Paris is an artist or is willing to become one to avoid clean living.
So, it’s much harder than in Hemingway’s time to find a garret to be Bohemian in. Young American artists, arriving fully equipped with beards and plastic cobwebs, have easeled their way into everything in the Latin Quarter, paying large sums for a garret in first-class state of shambles and with a genuine hole in the roof (often difficult to distinguish from the spurious brace –and-bitter). I simply couldn’t afford the sort of room Mimi is accustomed to dying of consumption in. At the Maison she would have to make shift on the ping-pong table. I wasn’t too happy about this, but after all the Maison did have showers, and I might always run into a healthy Mimi.
Besides, I was partially a student, offering up my bugle to the grindstone of post-graduate study at the Sorbonne. I soon discovered the secret of the Sorbonne graduate’s breadth of learning. Educators whose taste is jaded by a steady diet of boiled science-men should try this recipe sometime:
Instead of the students cutting classes, the professors do. With an even 700 years of teaching experience behind them, the Faculty of the Sorbonne have learned not to be caught in the classroom. Many of the professors manage to be out of town during the school year. A student from Gaudeloupe turns up for his first biology lecture and finds on the door a small, handwritten note saying that the professor is pursuing tree toads in Gaudeloupe and won’t be visible until the year after next.
If he can’t get out of Paris in time to escape the autumnal flux of students, the professor can always die. Owing to a Sorbonne convention of not conceding the death of a professor until five years after his behavior has become suspect as excessively meditative, the student can never be sure that he is not trying to invoke a ghost. This adds an eerie element to his education, the importance of which can hardly be overestimated.
Naturally, not all the professors succeed in escaping. But those that are left find all sorts of ingenious excuses for not giving their lectures, or at least delaying them as long as possible. Some are busy giving examinations. By giving examinations at the beginning of the term, not only do they eliminate a lot of students who might otherwise try to hear a lecture, cluttering up the halls and creating draughts, but they cut down the period before the Christmas holidays to a handful of lectures hardly worth bothering about.
Well, you ask, how does this make for a panoramic education? Quite simple. Here’s the way it works.
Student turns up for, say, a lecture on Comparative Theology. He finds a note on the door. The Comparative Theology professor regrets that he will be unable to meet his Thursday class owing to the fact that he has gone to Hell on business. Now, there is no student lounge, no common room, no snack bar in the Sorbonne. Nowhere to go and relax. Unused classrooms are locked. Even the washroom is guarded by a concierge who, though pleasant enough when explaining the paper shortage, will not tolerate social gatherings within his precincts.
The student therefore has the choice of going home to a suspicious family or, even more ghastly, entering the Library. Unless – and this is the gimmick – he goes to some other lecture. For, although the student’s own lecture may always be cancelled, he will find another amphitheater open and heated and filing with people. Goaded by conscience and curiosity, hungry for the sound of a human voice, he traipses in with the crowd. First thing he knows he is listening to a brilliant lecture about something he had never heard of. New vistas open up. His interest is sparked. He is on his way to a well-rounded education.
I can attest personally to the effectiveness of this oblique approach. Although I never quite trapped a lecture in my own period of French literature, I sat in on some lulus about Early Etruscan Art, the Physiology of Vegetables, and Burial Customs amongst the Ancient Greeks. And while not learning enough about these subjects to discuss them at length, I’m set to heckle anybody else who tries it.
I only wish I could have gotten close enough to the front of the class to have seen one of the professors. A heavy ground fog drifts down the Sorbonne’s cold, stone corridors and leaks into the lightless lecture rooms, obscuring the professor from all but those students equipped with radar. Still, it’s nice to know he’s up there somewhere.
Wait, the fog is clearing.
The lady professor shuffles her notes professionally, deals herself a card off the top, and peers at it through her lorgnette. She’s not a bad-looking dish, but that lorgnette could shrivel a man at fifty yards.
The first fact rises glistening from her tongue. All around me heads salaam in unison over notebooks, rise in the order in which their owners will graduate, the dullest still bent as the second fact is resurrected. Standing against the rear wall in the overcrowded classroom, I suddenly feel too old for this form of worship. I study my classmates:
Stocky, bespectacled young women in unconscionably comfortable shoes, ends of orange scarves lolling from coat pockets in some private paroxysm of retching. These plain girls who walk stomach-first, as a sort of wistful substitute for pregnancy, and who make the highest marks ever.
A couple of boyish English, red-eared, hair combed by hurricane, trousers carbuncled at the knee and jackets leathered at the elbow.
The sleek young Italian priest, black-coated, black-buttoned, face carved into ivory attention.
Black boys, Chinese.
A beautiful French girl, blonde, who moved to her seat with the slow, sinuous grace of a coiling python and took off her coat with a surge of breasts that rocked the entire curriculum.
The room is too warm.
Standing beside me is a girl, another dumpling in the stew. But her face is strangely peaceful. Is she having a religious experience? No, she is fainting. My realization that she is fainting is all her knees have been waiting for. They buckle and I catch her under the armpits. She is very heavy. I look desperately at the lady professor, but she lorgnetting another note. Nobody has noticed what has happened. I can’t think of the French for “fainted” and my wrists are getting tired.
After a while the girl slumps to the floor in spite of me, and while I’m trying to wrestle her erect some people nearby look around. Sensing that the scene we are presenting suggests indecent assault, I shout in English:
“For God’s sake, open a window!”
This foreign noise attracts the rest of the class, who stare at me with cold suspicion. The lady professor, gradually becoming aware of a disturbance, makes a myopic sweep of the floor with her lorgnette. She focuses on me, struggling to lug the guts into the neighbour room. I feel somebody pulling me off the girl. A couple of other females help the recovering fainter out to the corridor, leaving me panting and red and under general opprobrium.
I am the type that, in a crisis, is pushed aside by the person who knows what to do. I only wish he could be there in the first place.
I don’t attend any more courses at the Sorbonnne.
The Salle de Travail of the Bibliotheque Nationale, “world’s richest library” (le Guide Bleu). Average age of students: fifty. Average distance of noses from books: four inches. Only sound, the gentle rustle of beard on manuscript, the whisper of call slips sliding down the pneumatique to stacks below, the chair scrape of somebody quietly retiring to the foyer to drop dead.
Concentration is so heavy the arms are broken off most of the chairs. The readers are straight out of Daguerre’s first experiments in photography.
A little man saved from midgetdom only by his bowler. With hands resting on his behind, he fluffs out the winds of his swallowtail coat (circa 1885), like a nervous blowfly.
A great grey faceless nun, crucifix sheathed in her bodice, the Saviour tucked under the blanket with just his head and arms outside, so that he seems to be sleeping warm on that mighty chest.
A gaunt nose-taker who is obviously, soundlessly insane. He lays down his pen, his face splits into a mad grin of triumph, he rubs his hands between his knees like a safecracker honing his fingers. Suddenly he is savagely gnawing a knuckle, easy to destroy it. The knuckle is swollen with callous. Then with a slow and graceful smoothing of his hair he returns calm to his note-taking.
Passing through the Salle like a coloured streamer – a pretty girl. While the catalogues academic virgins from Iowa and Ontario kneel and pray into the files, offering themselves to some god of primary sources.
Once, I think I have caught the old gentleman on my left nodding asleep, but he turns out to be blind in the near eye.
Two penitentiary gangways run around the walls, the cells of books. Four million books awaiting the brief parole of a reader. The worst criminals doomed to perpetual confinement. Others brought out for grilling, under magnifying glass, probed by pencil flashlight, backs broken if they prove reticent.
I am intimidated by this library where they won’t let you take a book out. They have a guard on the door to make sure you don’t, to ask you to open your briefcase when you leave. You must read your book in the Salle. You can’t take it home and conveniently lose it under a pile of magazines and old bridge tallies. Since you can’t do much else in the Salle, you are more or less forced to read the book. An insidious process. After a while you come to enjoy reading. Nothing sharpens a pleasure like knowing it is a restricted privilege.
Perhaps that helps explain why France is a nation of voracious readers. Perhaps we in Canada need fewer glib lending libraries in which books are blatantly available as the latest issue of Real Screen Garbage. Perhaps Canada would be better informed if a book were as hard to take out as a bottle.
Anyhow, the Bibliotheque Nationale knows how to play hard to get. After you’ve submitted the call slip for a book you have time to step out for a glass of wine, or even a quick trip around the world. Deep in the subterranean warrens of the Library, batteries of gnomes are contriving reasons for not finding the book, or at least for finding the wrong book.
For this reason it is a good idea to bring along your own book to read until your slip comes back stamped with time, date, condition of tract, and the notation that the book you’ve asked for either is already out or was never written. In any event you do read, because the medallion heads of Aristotle, Plato and Horace, circling the cupola, are watching you with a cold, clear eye, and there’s a queue of people waiting for a seat in the Salle. A remarkable queue indeed.
In France you take a book along, whatever you’re going to do because the doing is bound to take longer than you planned France’s high degree of literacy is founded on solid inefficiency.
Even Paris is irritating, if you’re geared up too high. Trained on the American way of life, which is so beautifully banked at the turns that there’s never any question of one’s not dying at time, I chafed at the pace of Paris:
Crowds block the sidewalk, crystallized around a street vendor hustling a gadget to take skin off new potatoes or fat old wives. The French can’t get a over the miracle of oral communication.
In a large department store I linger while the record of my purchase is entered by a dignified person in a dress suit, his scrip crawling across the page of a leger designed for doomsday every dip of the pen into its bottle another banderillo into my impatience.
I try to run for the subway train I hear coming in the Metro but those in front won’t let me. They have the crazy idea that five minutes one way or the other don’t matter and that neither do I.
At first, only by an effort of will have I understood that the French cares less about time than about what happens in it. My reeducation begins with the discovery that most North Americans don’t know how to eat. We eat on the run, like marathon swimmers and some other species of queer fish. We snatch breakfast Adam’s apples bobbing in the brief, frantic transmission of coffee and toast. For lunch, perched on spine-blunting stools, we contest a square foot of counter, wolfing a brittle wedge of sandwich and its headstone of withered dill. (Or, worse, we exhume it from its paper bag and pull off the winding sheets of greaseproof paper to find the remains of Mother’s bridge-party: tuna that’s started to turna.) And dinner, all too often, we pythonize on the double so that Sis can make a movie, Father can listen to “It Pays To Be Daft,” and Mother has time to throw out the empty cans before charging off to her night class in glass-blowing.
Except for a few isolated communities, where the pace of life favours feeding and breeding, we’re all teed up for pill meals. In the brutal scramble for scratch we abuse the most innocent and faithful of our appetites, so that later we can keep our ulcers awash in elk’s milk. Even during the declining days of Rome, when the Romans were burning the Christian at both ends, they never violated the sanctity of the feast. We may or may not be ripe for the barbarian hordes, but Heaven alone can save us now from the Automat.
The poignancy of this betrayal of the inner man can be felt most keenly after a meal in a good French restaurant, especially if you forget to loosen your belt. For the French not only have gastronomic know-how, they have retained the quaint notion that a cafe luncheon is an occasion, not for clinching a business deal, but for enjoying food. More than that, at noon in Paris all commerce freezes. Shutters clang closed on shop windows, exterior handles vanish from doors, and during two hours, for the whole length and breadth of the city, the only transaction is that between plate and palate.
In a few weeks, by constant practice, I built up my elapsed time, from ordering an aperitif to picking up of change, to an hour and forty minutes. Eating solo, that is. Much better time (anything over two hours) can be made if you’re with somebody you can make love to between the salad and the Camembert.
And after a while I learn to descend the subway steps one at a time.
Paris travels mainly underground. Blundering beneath the city in every direction is the Metropolitain, which makes up in cheapness what it lacks in speed. Each day four million people tumble into its burrows, to be compressed, dehydrated, garlicized and finally excreted by the elderly blindworms. Throughout the process, Parisians remain composed and gracious. They back on to a crowded train, using that part of their anatomy which provides the softest buffer against those already congealed within.
Stationed on the platform is what could be Robespierre’s mother, a Metro worker who knows exactly how far the coaches can swell with people without wedging into the bore of the tunnel. When she sees this point being reached she lays aside her knitting and blows a whistle, whereupon the train conductor presses the button that slams the doors shut on those who didn’t quite make it.
The inevitable intimacy of travel on the Metro during rush hours is supplemented by a more voluntary variety at all hours. It is customary to neck on the Metro. Nearly every trainload includes at least one couple nuzzling, kissing or hugging. All ages are eligible, and some of the worst offenders are already married to each other.
Since the trains are well lighted, this unabashed love-making is likely to unnerve the visitor accustomed to the high moral tone of the B.C. Electric or Toronto T.C. At least it unnerved me. One Saturday night, mixing with Parisian youth on its way home, I scarcely know where to look. If I had been with a lady I could have looked down her throat, like the others, but I was just going along for the ride.
Of course in Paris you soon adjust yourself to this sort of thing, unless you come from the stonier parts of Nova Scotia. The French take for granted certain natural functions whose existence we in North America have never openly admitted. Thus in the Metro, the cinema, at the cafe table, or simply on the sidewalk, monsieur is at perfect liberty, thanks to this Freedom of the Smooch, to plant a plucker on madame. That is why, just as every Canadian knows how to skate and every Englishman is at home on the cricket pitch, every Frenchman has a solid grounding in seduction. At the moment there is no agitation amongst Frenchwomen in favour of skating or cricket.
For his ride, with or without romance, the use of the Metro pays 10 francs, or roughly three cents. This makes the Metro one of the world’s cheapest methods of transportation and encourages its workers to strike fairly frequently. When only the wealthy have cars, and you can’t get more than five on a bicycle, hugging or no hugging, well, a strike can certainly be a nuisance...
One of the most colourful and celebrated districts of all the world’s cities is the Paris Left Bank. As soon as anybody thinks of Paris he thinks of the Left Bank. Even before I left Vancouver, friends were happily discussing the probability of my being slugged there.
Hector on Love and Skincare
We accommodate up to ten guests at a time. Although there are sometimes large groups who descend (such as the recently departed Raymond Chandler reading circle), the majority of our visitors arrive solo, or two by two. Like the ark.
Typically, people stay between five and seven days. They are mostly strangers to each other, and it is interesting watching them building a community. Who knows what makes one cluster different from another? Chemistry, I guess. What’s sure is that they’re never the same. Sometimes, they become a contemplative order, exchanging not much more than good morning pleasantries and mild remarks about the weather. Other groups are hot and electric. They banter, they spark, they make as much noise as a bunch of after-the-show chorus girls in a dressing room. On rare occasions, we see the signs of real animosity. Last month, for instance, a high school guidance counsellor (who should have known better) deeply offended a professor of Canadian literature by dismissing Robertson Davies as “a poser and a hoser”.
Oh dear! The look on the professor’s face! You’d have thought she’d just smelled something rancid. Her glance took in his exposed jugular, and she ran her finger over the serrated edge of her grapefruit spoon. Luckily, she contained herself. But she steered clear of him for the remainder of her time with us. I would never level a direct accusation based only on circumstantial evidence. Still – he is our only guest who has ever reported someone sneaking into his room and squeezing the whole contents of a tube of toothpaste between his sheets.
We almost always learn something from our guests, who arrive with their different ideas and theories. This morning, for instance, a civil servant called Bridget, who is reading Proust (who, by the way, is this year’s most-read author at the Bachelor Brothers’, don’t ask me why), started a breakfast table discussion about early memories.
“I’ve blotted so much out,” she said. “I can hardly remember anything before the age of eight.”
“Maybe you just haven’t found the right trigger,” was the suggestion of a computer programmer named Dennis. “I had a girlfriend who used a lavender bath oil. My grandmother must have favoured a similar scent, because with one whiff I was right back in her house. I remembered all kinds of things – the position of the furniture, the colour of the kitchen, the knickknacks she kept around.”
I realized then that I am still very much in touch with my childhood memories. Perhaps this is because we have never lived in a house other than this, and every object is heady with familiarity. I suppose I can attach some specific recollection or story to almost any trinket in the place. There are quite a number of these, now that I think about it. Every so often, Virgil suggests we undertake a wholesale deaccessioning of artifacts. Now and then, I’ll agree to a very selective weeding. But overall, I resist. This is one of the ways in which my brother and I differ. He is neat. I am partial to clutter.
I was always a scavenger. Nothing made me happier, as a little boy, than to root through other people’s trash. You never know when you might find some discarded treasure that you just needed to be cleaned of the bits of the eggshell and coffee grounds to be made good as new. Mother was quite tolerant of this instinct, although even she would arch an eyebrow and sigh when I dragged some particularly foul-smelling foundling home with me. Crippled chairs. Lamps suffering from burnout. Knives that had lost their competitive edge. Mother always said that my lust for salvaging odds and sods everyone else had given up on meant I was destined for a career as either an antique dealer or a social worker. Considering the age of half our clientele and the emotional fragility of the others, I think she wasn’t far from wrong.
A bed and breakfast is heaven on earth for someone with my recuperative instincts. Things get left behind. Watches, neckties, valuable first editions: these are returned without delay. But people quite deliberately discard toiletries, such as shampoos, conditioners and little nubbins of soap, just because there is an insufficient quantity left to make it worthwhile lugging home. I know many delicate souls who would not deign to avail themselves of a hair product that had lived most of its life in the shower with a naked stranger. But I’m not shy about turning such items to my own use. Little makes me happier than trying a new shampoo. Over the years, I have laundered my locks with the juices of aloe vera and the yucca plant, with potions made from honey, apple cider vinegar, whale placenta, and the hard-to-find ooze of some species of sea urchin, collected at great peril by divers off the Great Barrier Reef. I am quite used to being complimented on my hair. Lustrous, soft, manageable, thick, full of highlights: these are the terms of endearment I hear all the time.
Of course, these compliments often come my way through guests who are amazed that Virgil and I, as twins, are so utterly unlike one another when it comes to the hairline. Virgil has very little left on top. He grows his fringe long on one side and combs it over the bald pate. He holds these thin strands in place with a staining oil. I have told him that I think this is a big mistake.
“You don’t think you’re fooling anyone, do you? Why don’t you just accept that you’re bald?”
“I’m not trying to fool anyone. It’s a style, nothing more. In any case, Hector, you are hardly in any position to point accusing fingers when it comes to discussions of vanity!”
It can be touchy. But in this case, he is also right. I am a vain person.
It was largely through my vanity that Altona Winkler worked her way into my heart. She came here about twenty years ago. At that time, land prices in the valley – which have latterly sky-rocketed – were depressed. Altona, on the other hand, was basking in the afterglow of a really terrific divorce settlement. She was able to buy herself a little hobby farm and was freed from the necessity of ever working again. But as she is not the kind to simply cool her heels, she began to write romance novels and to sell cosmetics door to door. Thus far, she remains unpublished. But her career as a beauty product saleswoman has been an unparalled success.
We met when she appeared on the porch one morning, her case of samples in hand. She asked for “the lady of the house.”
“I regret to report that there is no lady. Unless, of course, you count the cat and the parrot. And ‘lady’ would be stretching it a bit for either of them. You’re selling something?”
“Soaps, powders, facial masks, bath oils and salts, skin toners and conditioners, mild astringents, and so on. Perhaps you’d be interested in choosing something for a lady friend.”
“Hmmmm,” I said, noncommittally. “I’ve always envied women their cosmetics. There are so many of them! Men have to get by with just soap and a rough towel.”
“Not necessarily,” said Altona, sensing she had a toe in this unlikely door. “Show me the law that says a man can’t use skin cream! Show me where it says that wrinkles are manly! If you’re interested, I’ll show you some really wonderful creams right now!”
And that was the beginning of my association with Altona Winkler. It has gone on for a long time now. It suits us both. It is relaxed and casual. Comfortable. In one way or another, we attend to each other’s needs. There have been times when her work with the Rumor has caused a bit of tension. But we get over it, soon enough. We will never run out of conversation. There will always be another moisturizer to try.
Altona likes to read to me in bed, from a novel in progress. Sometimes, it all sounds alarmingly familiar. Here is an excerpt from Passion’s Sweet Tempest, which even now is making the rounds of publishers:
They lay side by side, exhausted by the rigours of love. Annalise rose from crumpled sheets that were as white and loped as a meringue. She turned on her elbow and stretched, languorous and sensuous as a leopard. The air around her was heavy with dusk and musk, and still electric with love. She peered across the bed at Umberto. Even without her glasses she could see the thick mat of hair that spread between the rosy mounds of his nipples, like interference on a television screen stretching between vertical and horizontal hold. She watched his chest move up and down, like a bellows: a bellows that had only recently fanned a raging fire. A frisson of desire ran through her as she surveyed his Sicilian profile: a profile that bore a striking resemblance to the achingly familiar outline of his country of origin.
Annalise reached out and caressed him. She traced the line of his nose. His pores – they were just ever so slightly enlarged. She knew she could do something about that. “Umberto,” she whispered, her tongue near his ear. “Annalise,” he exhaled, and turned to her. The whole night lay before them. There was so much they had to do...
I wish Altona well in her writing career. But I confess it has occurred to me that if one of her novels ever sees the light of print, I might have a hard time living it down. Isn’t that life, though? It’s full of consequences, and chickens coming home to roost. Here endeth the lesson.