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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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“What’s wrong?” Sydney asked again.

“I don’t know if I can do it — go see Mr. McVicer.”

My mother trembled. Smoke came from the chimney on the east side of the house and broke and scattered, and small rotted leaves twirled into the air from time to time, like a dance of lost children.

“Please take my hand,” she said.

“Elly,” my father whispered, “what have you done? Did you take some money?”

Elly, a blue tam pulled down to her forehead, hiding her eyes, looked at Sydney as if she was questioning his question. She pushed her hat up and sniffed, and shook her head mournfully, as if she was about to cry.

“I took no money,” she said.

He took her hand and they went to the door.

My mother had thought about this all morning. She had not had much luck in her life.

If she spoke of yesterday’s incident, Rudy would deny it, and there was a good chance McVicer would think it nothing more than a ruse to cover what she had actually done, which was take his money from the upstairs drawer.

Of course she had taken nothing. What held more power over her lack of resolve was the fact that Sydney was even more gullible than she. So she had never told him about her progressively uncomfortable conversations or how Rudy disliked him; how he had subtly mocked Sydney in front of the people at Polly’s because Sydney would be ashamed if he knew. And she did not want him to be ashamed. My dad would
never ask for help, but he was enormously grateful to both McVicer and Rudy.

Because of this my mother had lied, had told Sydney that Rudy was interested in him and impressed that he read books and wanted to go to university. To change this story now would seem opportunistic because of the theft. Every moment she had failed to speak the truth, to save my father’s feelings, went against her now, when truth spoken sooner might have saved her from this accusation.

To explain anything about her meeting with Rudy, and Rudy’s assault, would seem nothing more than a face-saving alibi. Worse, an alibi that hurt and damaged the reputation of a man Sydney believed was being kind to them. A man who was married to poor sick Gladys, and lived in a fifteen-room house.

So it was clear: she should have told Sydney the night before. When he had kissed her at supper he knew something was wrong and had asked her what was the matter. But she was too humiliated to tell him.

Now the robbery fit like a key into tumblers in some terrible Pandora’s box, and prodded by her silence made her, by everything she had done or refused to say since five-thirty the day before, culpable.

When my parents got to the house Rudy was sitting in the den. He wore his gold cufflinks and watch, his small sapphire ring. His fingers were short and white, his fingernails clean and manicured.

He glanced at my mother, smiled piteously, and glanced away. For her part, her eyes were downcast, her tam still on her head, half covering her eyes, and her small nose was reddened from the walk. She kept admonishing herself for having gone to Polly’s Restaurant. When McVicer looked at her, her smile hopelessly affirmed her guilty state. His eyes were penetrating. He had been a decorated officer in the Second World War.

Tossing some piled-up mail aside, Leo asked them what had happened to his money in the drawer. To show how important this was, he had not changed his clothes. He still wore his hunting boots, hunting vest, and humphrey pants, dotted with specks of blood.

The old house took on various shades of light as the wind blew, and seemed to Elly to smell of guns and fly rods and rubber boots.

“Where’s the money?” Leo asked.

“I don’t know,” my mother said, looking at the floor — a floor she had been vacuuming when last in the house. She looked at the creases the vacuum cleaner had made. At the midpoint in the rug was the very spot the vacuum cleaner had been turned off. After Rudy left yesterday she had gone into the washroom for a second, washed the blood away, had come out, in a daze, and couldn’t finish the vacuuming. Thinking of this, she glanced Rudy’s way and saw that he was looking at that exact same spot on the rug. Their eyes met and she looked quickly at the floor again.

Although Leo cared for her, he was more than willing to admit a disappointment in trusting her. He had known her family well. Her adoptive father, old Mr. Brown, was a hump back whose shirts were bought at his store. Each year her mother picked fiddleheads and strawberries and he allowed her to pick them on his property.

Finally he turned away from Mom and rubbed his hands together. “You can’t tell me what you did with the five hundred dollars,” Leo said.

“No,” my mother whispered, shaking her head. Her legs trembled. She was going to say “No, because I didn’t take it,” but she’d already said she hadn’t taken it.

“It wouldn’t be nice for a married woman to have to talk to the police, would it.”

“No,” my mother whispered, looking up quickly, tears flooding her eyes.

“Nor would it be too nice if I fired Sydney — well, why shouldn’t I?” Leo said in his strong river accent, which always comes to people here in the midst of deep emotion.

But by now my mother couldn’t speak. She only shook in spasms, her left foot leaning on her right foot, a stance she had had since a child, whenever people at the orphanage were angry at her.

“Tell them you didn’t do it,” Sydney said.

Still she only cried, because of the kindness Leo and Sydney were trying to show her. Sometimes in the afternoon Leo had told her to stop working and sit with him and drink a cup of tea. He would talk about his wife, of how she had to go to the hospital, of how the world was changing and men acting like women and women acting like men.

Now she felt she had betrayed him and those nice cups of tea. A stern and practical old man, but one who nonetheless cared very much for her. Sydney was laughed at by Mathew Pit, tormented by Mathew’s sister, Cynthia, and Elly had tried to protect him by telling him that Rudy was impressed by him. It may have been the worst miscalculation of her life.

Leo spun around to Sydney. “Perhaps you did it for her — yesterday about five o’clock?”

“Oh no,” my mother said, trying to wipe her eyes. “No,” she said. “He didn’t — he couldn’t — he never could — I did.”

Sydney said nothing. The wind blew fiercely.

“You did?” Rudy said, astonished.

“I — I don’t know if I did or didn’t,” Mother said.

“I — could have you prosecuted. One phone call.” Leo paused. “But you have children — it’s the children I think of — not you. Sydney, I will not take Elly’s money — but you will work on the bridge until you pay the five hundred
back — you will pay it back. You have been a problem on this road before, Sydney — stole money from the church —and boxes of smelts and blamed it on others — and said things about people when they tried to help you. Well — and Ms. Whyne — Elly — Diedre Whyne, do you remember her? She advised you not to go off marrying Sydney. How do I know? I know because I am a friend of her father — she is my goddaughter — she cared
that
much for you — she wanted you to go off to school, didn’t she, and get an education —she tried very hard with you —”

My mother nodded hopelessly.

“But you didn’t go off to school, you got married to Sydney — now look at the trouble you’re in — you never took advice — we knew you were slow — at church — we knew, we helped you — let you do things for the Catholic Women’s League and help at the picnics — we all liked you. Oh, I sometimes think Ms. Whyne has very hard ideas — but her father is a friend and I trust her. Has she asked to see you recently? Last week didn’t she want to talk to you?”

Again mother nodded.

“But you’re frightened of her. Why?”

My mother did not speak.

“Sydney is telling you not to see her — isn’t he, because she is a social worker and ready to take care of you?”

Leo McVicer said this without having the least understanding of social workers. He simply felt that Whyne was the nice young woman who at times came down to Christmas dinner and played the piano, and now and again played bridge with him and Gladys. She was a woman who was being useful to society, protecting people like Elly Henderson from themselves, which he felt was what women were supposed to do.

“I think you put her up to this, Sydney — didn’t you! You believe you deserve this money — because of Roy — or perhaps
what Gerald Dove has said about your daughter — and the supposed bad molecules?”

“That is not true,” my father said.

There was a long silence.

“Go — before I decide to turn you in,” Leo said, gesturing at nothing.

“I’m sorry,” my mother said, “I am — Mr. McVicer — I —”

“What?” Leo said.

“I didn’t get the upstairs hallway done.”

“Go!” Leo roared. “Both of you go!” He roared so loud Rudy himself shook.

They left and cut across the dark fields north toward the road, in silence holding hands. When they got to the road my mother stopped, stood still against an aged rotted spruce stump, and said out of the cold gloom of a November afternoon, “I did not steal.”

My father sighed.

“I know you did not steal,” he said, stuttering. “I know they think you did. I know Diedre will once again begin to assess us. That doesn’t matter. The only thing that bothers me is the poor old man.” He looked at her kindly.

My mother nodded. In the last ten years Diedre had done everything she could to pry my mother away from Sydney. That my mother would not look upon her views as the right views, as the sound and practical views, poisoned the relationship.

Elly thought all of this in a second — how Diedre would use this to hurt her.

“Don’t worry — truth will out,” Sydney said.

They continued their walk, not understanding how evil and darkness attach themselves to the good or great to destroy their will to live.

“Why would she rob me, Rudy — why?” Leo asked. He turned sideways in his seat as he spoke, but just for a second and then straightened again. Then he turned sideways to listen to Rudy’s answer, staring at him sharply and straightened once more.

“I don’t know,” Rudy said.

“If she wanted the money, if she needed the money, she could have come to me —”

Rudy nodded.

He looked at Leo and was frightened. He was frightened of his temper, his well-known reputation for never giving in to those he suspected.

“But they think I am terrible — so they’d rather steal from me than ask me a favour. How well did you know her?”

“Oh, not well at all.”

“Did you think that she was like this? Capable of anything like this?” He turned sideways to listen, and waited with a prolonged stare.

“I didn’t think she was like that.”

“No, no,” the old man said, drumming his fingers on the armrest. “She didn’t seem so to me either.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

“Everyone is turning against me, that’s what I think,” he said finally.

“No, Leo — that’s not true —”

But Leo could only think of all of his friends who were now dead, and of how little friendship he had left. He himself had never robbed a soul, had in fact done the opposite. Except that now he was being accused of careless disregard for his workers’ health twenty years before. It stung him deeply, for he had as yet found no way to fight against it. Or no way to fight against Gerald Dove, whom he had hired just for the purpose
of this fight. Dove, whom he had taken from the orphanage on a whim and kept as his own son.

“Dove has gone bonkers, you think?” he asked. “Power hungry, you think? Trying to destroy the man who made him, you think?”

“I think so,” Rudy admitted, relieved that the subject for now was changed.

“Yes — a little education. You know, Rudy, I could have chose anyone — from a number of boys at that orphanage. Careless disregard,” he said. “Am I a man of careless disregard?”

“Of course not.”

“I certainly am
not
,” he wagered, as if trying to provoke an argument.

Nothing made him more furious than to think that
these
men,
these
grown men, men
he trusted
, who used those chemicals to keep down budworm disease and clear roads — when everyone else was doing the
same
, back in the sixties — would stop using these chemicals the exact moment everyone else did, and charge that
he
, Leo McVicer, was guilty of knowing what they themselves, and even scientists, did not!

“Yes,” he said, glaring at Rudy, when he thought of it. “Many a lad turned against me bought their homes with money they earned from me, paid their stinking mortgages from my chequebook —”

“I know,” Rudy said.

“They aren’t men. They all have the blood of pigeons,” Leo said.

Six years before, Leo had donated eighty thousand dollars to the university so the citizens could keep the university here on the river. Yet this very night, at the university, in that very wing McVicer himself had paid for, Dove was conducting an environmental study of his groundwater.

And Leo was now being accused in the paper, a man with
grade five education accused of being an elitist and
against
the working man, by Prof. David Scone, who had met the working class, not by calluses on his hands, but by reading Engels and Man. Leo did not understand this at all.

Leo thought that bringing Gerald Dove back would accomplish three things. First, the accusations against him by the Environmental Protection Agency would be proven false. Second, Gerald would see Gladys, and see what folly their childhood love was. And finally, that Gerald Dove sooner or later would come to work for him on a permanent basis.

None of it had happened. The accusations were as damning as ever. Gladys only remembered the wound in her heart when Gerald Dove went away, and Gerald Dove looked upon his daughter as he had when he was a boy. Instead of Dove coming to work for him they now could not stand the sight of one another. This was the first time Leo had failed so utterly in his calculations.

Leo remembered carrying Gerald Dove in his arms over the swinging bridge on the Norwest Miramichi and looking into the child’s windblown red hair; and it seemed that on that bright sunlit day in 1953 he should have been warned.

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