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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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Dr. David Scone sat with her for a long time patting her hand with his but looking stem and irritated, as if some great weight was now upon his shoulders, some grave social duty (not realizing of course that it was the simple vulgarity of matchmaking). It was of course an age much like this age, when people conspired to look good more than be good. When they got to the blueberry field, Diedre picked beside her, and talked a long time about how David Scone held kind feelings for and was intent upon helping the poor of the Maritimes. He was Diedre’s
companion; platonic (it would seem). Professor Scone was most concerned with the plight of rural women, who had never been taken seriously. Now it was time that they were. (Dr. Scone seemed to have himself just discovered this, as if writers like Brontë or Hardy had not.) My mother said that would certainly be nice, to be taken seriously — especially in serious matters.

David Scone had black hair that curled over his ears. He was tall and thin, his arms were thin and weak looking. His black silky beard covered a milk white face. But Mom did not at all like the way he looked at her, which was with a steady haughty glance, as if everything she had ever done had been told to him by someone else.

I believe she recognized in Professor Scone the baffled pity and subtle condescension a man of education often has for others, and which others had held toward
her
all her life, a trait more mocking than considerate and known by the poor or the “disenfranchised in a second. Also there may have been a certain hope involved. This could be sensed in the late-summer air and the wide expanse of trees where an old bear came out to gorge herself on berries not far from them. That is, the new world had caught Mother up in its snare every bit as pernicious as the nun’s pointer falling on her small white hands. Yes, they told her, she would have a great life without my father, but that she must be bold, inventive, and lie to get rid of him. To Diedre he was a physical monstrosity.

“God, whatever will you do?” Diedre had asked Mother that afternoon; and then she whispered: “David Scone is divorced and does like you very much, can’t you tell? He also is a
professor!
— a professor showing interest in you — my dear —”

“I thought he was
your
boyfriend,” Mother whispered back, trying to show interest out of politeness.

Diedre looked at her strangely and then smiled. “I do not have
boyfriends
, love.”

“But I love Sydney,” Mother said. There was a pause. Mother heard a grasshopper tick in the grass beside her bowl of blueberries, and stood and moved five paces away. Diedre followed and kneeled beside her once again. It was as if— and Mother sensed this — my father’s feelings for her did not matter, that they believed Sydney had a calculating mind from which they would free her.

“Can Sydney after all his trouble learn about love?” Diedre whispered finally. My mother had been waiting for the shoe to drop. For all her young life, shoe dropping, reprimand coming, chores given were the things she knew about.

“If he had to learn it I would not seek it,” Mother replied, still whispering, which showed in a truly elemental way that she would always match wits.

Within five minutes, a sharper, colder, and more longing wind came from the bay, and reminded one of autumn coming on.

“I will name one of my children Autumn,” Mother said, “for the wind has informed me I will have a daughter.” And again she stood and walked five paces. Again Deidre followed and plopped her bowl beside Mother’s.

“So, Missy, did the wind inform you if that would be your fifteenth or sixteenth child?”

Late that evening, when she came back to her rooming house, a two-storey white building with a large enclosed veranda, and saw Sydney waiting for her on the steps, with battered boots on his feet, his hands bruised from work, his body aching from piling lumber at $1.65 an hour, she realized how much she did love him.

Diedre told my mother she could have a job in Fredericton far away from Sydney Henderson and my mother should count herself lucky. My mother did try to feel lucky, but could not. The road, the little leaves on the trees — all of this, the dusty
quality of the clouds, all these
miracles
she would miss if she went away.

So that Sunday, three days after their blueberry-picking excursion and a day before she was supposed to go to Fredericton, Mom telephoned Diedre from her rooming house and said she could not possibly take this job.

“He’s bullying you — he talked you out of it, hasn’t he?” Diedre said. “Has he hit you or something?”

My mother whispered that this was not true, but she was crying so much the answer seemed a lie.

“I love you,” Diedre said. “You will not ruin your life — I want to take care of you — but at times you are infuriatingly ungrateful. Think of
his
attitude toward you — and think of David Scone’s attitude and how he cares so —”

“Does he care for all women, this Dr. David Scone from the university?”

“I can tell you all women,” Diedre said excitedly.

“But then why did he fight with his ex-wife?” Elly whispered, tears running down her cheeks. “That is no way to honour someone. Sydney has not fought with me — and we believe the same things —”

“Don’t be childish. David Scone’s relations with his ex-wife is a private matter, and we are not discussing David Scone’s attitudes but Sydney Henderson’s attitudes toward you —”

“But,” my mother whispered, “what are your attitudes toward Sydney?”

Diedre said that if Mother continued to speak like that she would just hang up on her and let her live with Sydney in a shack and see what would happen. So my mother, used to being bullied so that her fingers were arthritic by being rapped, said nothing else. Then Diedre, placated by my mother’s silence, spoke:

“Just go over for a year — you will meet
real
people. I love you more than anyone does — but — let’s just say this: Dr.
David Scone knows something about this man — Sydney.” Here she became short of breath, as people do when they wish to relay information that they fear might not be readily accepted. “Sydney went over to the office one day and tried to bully David into getting him enrolled. He did — with big plans about this and that. But David was not bullied and soon got rid of him! Take this job we have offered — it is your only chance! God — you’re a child. Babies and diapers to that man — who as you know has been implicated in all kinds of things!”

My mother, staring at the dresser as Diedre spoke, saw the white stone Father had thrown into the room, and swayed by this, whispered, “Goodbye,” hung up, and with a cardboard suitcase, and the white stone safely in her pocket, made her way to Dad’s property.

THREE

Mother had never seen my father’s house, for he was ashamed of it. It was the house we, the children, would grow up in. It was, even by Mom’s standards, a living proof of destitution. The first day she saw it, she told us, she stared at its yellow and red front, its tarpapered sides, its long tin stovepipe, before she entered in. Perhaps she was thinking she might turn around and walk all the way to Tabusintac and never see him again.

Across Arron Brook and beyond the dark spruce trees, on that day, as on all days, sat the Pit residence. The Pits’ and my father’s houses were the only two on this entire stretch.

She entered the house, for the door was left open. The table
was metal, as were the two kitchen chairs. There was a cot in the comer near the wood stove, and books over the floor, books of every size, books on every subject, history, philosophy and geography, novels. Books that he had collected from the time he was fifteen when he had gotten his first paycheque, working in a batch house in the woods. And books now collecting dust, long ago pored over. Hemingway, Voltaire, Conrad, George Eliot, and a hundred other authors sat within her reach.

It had turned cold with an east wind. The stove was out, and she could see her breath. On the back wall the paper was peeling, the side of one wall had a huge water stain, the kitchen window lay jammed, and beyond this was the moan of the wind in the trees. Far away was the roof of Rudy Bellanger’s house, Leo McVicer’s son-in-law. He had married Gladys McVicer, the spoiled eccentric daughter of Leo, the year before, in a wedding with five hundred guests, including the premier and a senator from Maine.

My mother set her things down and began to scrub.

The place was almost clean by the time Father got home that night.

“Elly,” he said, “you didn’t have to do this. Why aren’t you at the boarding house?”

“They were about to kick me out,” she said. “I wouldn’t take a job in Fredericton —” She looked at him, and realized how foreign he looked to her at that moment, coming from the woods, with his chainsaw, his back covered in drizzle and wood chips and sweat, his eyes ablaze from expended energy and glowing from the wildness of where he worked and the danger of it besides.

“Oh,” he said. “I guess you are stuck with me.”

“You have a lot of books,” she said, looking about the dismal place, dismal in the way the cold enters a small place in the middle of a bog.

“It’s what I have spent my money on,” he said almost apologetically, because he didn’t want her of all people to think of it as an affectation. “I never read a book until I was fourteen — I taught myself how to read — no one taught me — but as you can see I’ve made up for it.” He paused, looking at her worried and tired face. “And you know what I have found out in books?” He smiled.

“No,” Elly said.

He sat beside her. Outside, the air was bleak and thick with the monotony of rain, and they smelled northern fall above the tin roof, the quiet scent of autumn hunger. A moose bird flitted in the drizzle from a spruce’s dark bottom branch and hopped to his old tin barrel in the evening.

“I will say this once, and not to demean all the good they have tried to do for you. But I have found out, even before the death of my father, that no one can do an injury to you without doing an injury to themselves.” The wind and rain battered the eaves of the shoebox-shaped house, as if to mock him.

“Those who scorn you taunt only themselves — I knew this without reading one word; because in reading one is reminded of the truth man is given at birth — by man I mean man and woman. My father never had to read a book to feel ashamed after he hit my mother or me.

“When I was younger I drank a lot — very much — and when I was drunk I did and said silly things. One was pushing a boy from a roof — oh yes, I was drinking even then. I don’t intend to drink anymore — but I wanted to tell you that — so you would know — I have to be vigilant in that regard. But it has caused my other regards.”

She looked at him, bewildered. He smiled, and filled a pot with water for tea, walking about in large untied miner’s boots.

“They put you out of a boarding house —” he continued. “Well, they have demeaned themselves. The nuns bullied you
as a little girl and you washed floors for them, peeled potatoes, and went to mass every morning. I know the nuns. But now your friend Diedre has harmed you and yet speaks about a future society in which no harm will happen. I have heard her speak. Last year I went to a lecture she gave. Well, they are fine people. But they have never lived one night like either you or I. Yet do they have one bit more?”

“Perhaps they have more certainty in themselves,” Mother answered.

“A certainty when wrong is still wrong,” Father said. “Connie Devlin is certain I caused all his problems all my life. He plans to destroy me because I pushed him from a roof in anger. I know this.”

He paused again, and scratched his head, and tried to think of what to say to convince her.

“The problem today is between two groups of people,” he said as he stirred the pot for tea. “One group believes the world must change — and David Scone and Diedre might wish to
use
you to prove it. There is a second group, the group that you and I belong to. The group that says that in man’s heart is the only truth that matters. You cannot change a constant by changing how rules might be applied to this constant. Someday Diedre will see you are closer to the truth than she is, but it will be a long struggle.”

Mother nodded quickly, as if she hoped he would end his reflection because she did not understand it; and she had never seen this side of him. She lowered her eyes and breathed heavily and sighed.

“I will stay here,” she said, “and we will be married — and what happens will happen, for or against us doesn’t matter now.”

FOUR

My parents moved into that house across the lower flat scrub beyond Arron Brook from Mathew and Cynthia Pit.

A year after Dad and Mom were married, Diedre Whyne came to visit. Just as she had predicted, my mother was pregnant. And she looked about the terrible little place with a certain recrimination. God, what poverty — she had never seen it before. And again I add, who can blame her for her reaction, here in such a place at such a moment?

She came to the point. Cynthia Pit had met with Diedre, who now worked for the Department of Social Services. Cynthia was very upset, told Diedre she was pregnant — just as my mother was — and that Sydney was the father. Cynthia said she had gone to Sydney to ask for some financial support, and Syd had rebuked and struck her. It was, Diedre suggested, an awful situation, worse because of its sordid rural implications. My father said nothing.

Diedre had come to suggest a solution. My father would have a blood test as soon as the child was born and clear the matter. If he was the father, Diedre would see that the marriage done in haste was annulled, and Elly could still go to Fredericton and take that job.

Sydney looked at Diedre and said kindly he would not take any blood test.

“And why not?” Diedre asked, tapping a notebook on her knee. “What have you to fear?”

“Nothing. But it will cast hilarity on Cynthia if it is done and shame on the child. I will not participate in the shame of one and the ridicule of another for my own welfare in a community that has had no use for me from the time I myself
was born, has called me simple-minded and my father mad, at the request of a woman who suspects me of beating my wife and hopes for the failure of my marriage.”

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