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Authors: Hugh Maclennan

Each Man's Son

BOOK: Each Man's Son
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THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY

General Editor: David Staines

ADVISORY BOARD

Alice Munro

W.H. New

Guy Vanderhaeghe

 

For my sister,
Frances Annie Stewart MacLennan

Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it
abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

 

Prologue

C
ONTINENTS ARE
much alike, and a man can no more love a continent than he can love a hundred million people. But all the islands of the world are different. They are small enough to be known, they are vulnerable, and men come to feel about them as they do about women.

Many men have loved the island of Cape Breton and a few may have hated her. Ericson was probably the first to see her, Cabot landed on her, and after Cabot came the French. She seemed harsh and frigid to the firstcomers, but the moment the French saw her their imaginations were touched and they called her the Royal Isle. After a while they built on her eastern rim the master fortress of Louisburg to dominate Nova Scotia and guard the St. Lawrence.

When the wars began, the English and the New Englanders came up to Cape Breton and for a time she was as famous as Gibraltar. Louisburg fell, the French were driven out, the English and Americans went home and for a third of a century the island was vacant again.

Then across the ocean in the Highlands of Scotland a desperate and poetic people heard of her. They were a race of hunters, shepherds and warriors who had discovered too late that their own courage and pride had led them to catastrophe, since it had enabled them to resist the Saxon civilization so
long they had come to the end of the eighteenth century knowing nothing of the foreman, the boss, the politician, the policeman, the merchant or the buyer-and-seller of other men's work. When the English set out to destroy the clans of Scotland, the most independent of the Highlanders left their homes with the pipes playing laments on the decks of their ships. They crossed the ocean and the pipes played again when they waded ashore on the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island.

There they rooted themselves, big men from the red-haired parts of the Scottish main and dark-haired smaller men from the Hebrides, women from the mainland with strong bones and Hebridean women with delicate skins, accepting eyes and a musical sadness in their speech. For a long time nothing but Gaelic was spoken on the island until they gradually learned English from the handful of New England Loyalists who came to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution.

To Cape Breton the Highlanders brought more than the quixotic gallantry and softness of manner belonging to a Homeric people. They also brought with them an ancient curse, intensified by John Calvin and branded upon their souls by John Knox and his successors–the belief that man has inherited from Adam a nature so sinful there is no hope for him and that, furthermore, he lives and dies under the wrath of an arbitrary God who will forgive only a handful of His elect on the Day of Judgment.

As no normal human being can exist in constant awareness that he is sinful and doomed through no fault of his own, the Highlanders behaved outwardly as other men do who have softened the curse or forgotten its existence. But in Cape Breton they were lonely. They were no part of the great outer world. So the curse remained alive with them, like a somber beast growling behind an unlocked door. It was felt even when they were least conscious of it. To escape its cold
breath some turned to drink and others to the pursuit of knowledge. Still others, as the Puritans of New England had done earlier, left their homes, and in doing so found wider opportunities in the United States or in the empty provinces of western Canada.

But if the curse of God rested on the Highlanders' souls, the beauty of God cherished the island where they lived. Inland were high hills and a loch running in from the sea that looked like a sleeve of gold in the afternoon sun. There were trout and salmon streams lined by sweet-smelling alder, water meadows and valleys graced by elms as stately as those in the shires of southern England. The coast was rugged with gray granite or red sandstone cliffs, splendid with promontories, fog-bound in the spring when the drift ice came down from Newfoundland and Labrador, tranquil in summer, and in the autumns thunderous with evidences of the power of the Lord.

So for several generations the Highlanders remained here untouched, long enough for them to transfer to Cape Breton the same passionate loyalty their ancestors had felt for the hills of home. It was long enough for them to love the island as a man loves a woman, unreasonably, for her faults no less than for her virtues. But they were still a fighting race with poetry in their hearts and a curse upon their souls. Each man's son was driven by the daemon of his own hope and imagination–by his energy or by his fear–to unknown destinations. For those who stayed behind, the beast continued to growl behind the unlocked door.

Daniel Ainslie was one of those who stayed. In the year 1913 he considered himself a freethinker, a man who was proud because he had neither run away nor sought a new belief in himself through hard liquor. But he did not know–how many of us can understand such a thing–that every day of his life was haunted by a sense of sin, a legacy of the ancient curse.

Even when he tried to find strength by denying God's existence, he lived as though the hound of heaven were snapping at his heels. Even when he displayed his knowledge and intelligence as a priest displays his beads, he felt guilty because he knew so little and was not intelligent enough.

In one way or another he was forced to discover, as most of us do, that a man can ignore almost anything in his life except the daemon which has made him what he is and the other daemon which gives him hope of becoming more than any man can ever be.

 

One

T
HE SHADOW OF
a promontory lay forward on the sea like that of a giant resting on his elbows with the back of his neck to the late afternoon sun. Facing the sun over the water was a second-quarter moon, white in the cobalt mass of the sky.

Two small figures sat in a cove under the promontory, a woman and an eight-year-old boy. The red smock of the mother, the white shirt and green pants of the boy–the pants secured by cloth braces with large white buttons–were bright between the cliff and the giant's shadow on the sea. The tide was moving into the cove and now the water was breaking not many yards from the boy's feet. The whole place was awash with sound as the cliff caught and magnified the noise of the wind and water, echoed the screams of sea birds and reverberated with the occasional thunder of a big wave. Feeling the air rushing cold out of the sunshine into the shadow, suddenly conscious of the rise of the whole sea, the boy turned to his mother.

“The tide's coming in, isn't it?” He was proud of his knowledge. For a few moments he watched to see if the next wave would obliterate the mark of the one before. “What makes it change like that?”

She pointed to the white wafer of the moon. “There is what does it.”

He looked at her with bright surprise. “The moon? How?”

“It pulls the water up the shore and then lets it go back again.”

“Mummy, that's just another of your stories.” His eyes were twinkling.

“No, it isn't. I read it in a book. All the stars in the sky pull on each other all the time. In every direction at once. The earth is pulling on them, too. That's what we're on–the earth. And when the moon comes around on our side of the earth it pulls and pulls and the whole sea is lifted up against the land and that's what the tide is.”

He looked up at the moon and again at the water, and as she watched his face she wondered what he was thinking about. She was pleased because she had been able to answer such important questions so well. He watched the moon for a long time and then turned back to his play. It was no ordinary child's castle he had built in the sand, she thought. It was like the picture of the castle he had seen in the book she was reading to him. There were four walls with towers on the corners, a courtyard within and a drawbridge over a moat. The drawbridge was a chip of driftwood which he had just finished inserting.

But the boy's attention wandered while she watched him. The sea and the sky were too big and he was getting sleepy. He turned his head as a gull flew out from the overhang of the cliff and then he looked far, far up the beetling rock to the flecks of white where birds rested in crevices of the rock.

Mollie MacNeil looked too young to have an eight-year-old son. Her body was slim and her pale skin made her seem fragile, just as the eagerness of her smile showed how vulnerable she was. She had a Celtic delicacy of skin with a rose flush over her cheekbones, and as she leaned back with her chin tilted towards the sky her face seemed even more fragile than her body. It was the younger-than-normal face of a woman who has lived for years with a child and for a child.

Without warning, a strident steam whistle blasted the air. There was nothing in sight which could send forth such a sound, but the scream of the whistle shot up into the sky and filled it. Birds flew crying out of their nests in the cliff as the noise hung wailing in the air, but neither the boy nor his mother moved. They knew the whistle came from the colliery half a mile inland and they heard it with only part of their senses. It had always marked hours in their lives.

When the sound died away she rose with apparent reluctance and pulled down her rumpled skirt. “There is the end of the day shift, so you know how late it is.”

He watched her wrap a heel of bread in a piece of newspaper before putting it into a basket, along with a partly used jar of molasses and the empty bottle in which she had brought milk. Her dark hair and lovely eyes were reflected in his as she smiled.

“Think how good it will be when we get home this time! Did I tell you what we have for supper tonight?”

His face broke into a delighted smile. “Pork pie!”

“One whole one for you and another for me. I got them at the store only this morning so they'll be lovely and fresh.” The wind riffled her hair and she pushed it back out of her eyes. “Come now, Alan. It is always longer going home.”

“Will we stop at the spring in the woods?”

“Today there is no time for that. The spring is behind the doctor's house and that is on the other side of where we live.”

“But you said it was the best water in the world.”

“So it is, but we will save it for another day.”

He turned to look back at the sea, trying to understand what his mother meant when she had told him about the moon. Then he saw something which had not been there before. It was a schooner emerging from behind a bluff of land; close-hauled on the starboard tack, it was standing out to sea against the humping waves.

“Look!” he said. “There is a really big ship. Where is she going?”

“She would be bound for Newfoundland, probably.”

“What's that?”

“It's a great big island out there.”

“I can't see it.”

“Of course you can't. It is too far away for you to see it.”

“Could Father see it if he was here?”

“Not even your father could see that far.”

“Mummy?” The boy's face was grave as he forgot about the ship. “Where is Father now?”

She set her basket down on the sand and the smile left the corners of her mouth. “But I have told you, Alan–I have told you over and over again.” The smile reappeared to encourage him. “See if you can remember all by yourself.”

“Father has gone out into the world,” he said, as if repeating a lesson.

She clapped her hands. “Now tell me the other thing. Why has he gone out into the world?”

“He has gone away to do things for us. And when he comes back everything will be good. We will go into the store and get whatever we want and people will be proud of us and we will live in a fine house and be different.”

She bent and caught him, pretending she found him too heavy to move, and the child laughed and leaned back against her until she gave a jerk and swung him to his feet. A long rush of water slid up the beach, splashed against the sand house and washed part of it away. Another ground swell followed and both of them scampered into the recesses of the cove as they saw a sudden hump of water arch out of the sea, lurch forward into the shadow of the giant's shoulders, its crest whipped by the breeze so that it came at them like dark horses with streaming white manes. It burst on the sand, thundered within itself and hissed after the footsteps of the
woman and boy, and when it ebbed the sand house had disappeared. Nothing was left but a cold mound trickling with water, and on the edge of it, white and glistening, was an empty conch shell that had not been there before.

The boy darted back while his mother turned towards the path running slantwise up the side of the cliff, her basket swinging from her hand. As he followed her he slipped the shell into the pocket of his shirt.

At the top of the cliff they paused, breathless, and looked back over the sea. Its blue was deeper than the blue of the sky and the black hull and white sails of the schooner were tiny on its surface. Waves three miles long swelled in from far out and burst in lines of slow, lazy foam down the length of the coast. The woman and the boy stood watching until the distance made their eyes ache and then they turned inland. A few sheep, their shadows spindle-legged on the common where they pastured at the cliff's edge, looked up and baaed at them. They walked over the treeless pasture, climbed a stile and descended on the other side to a rough path which led them homeward through a low growth of brush and brambles.

Before them to the right stood the colliery. Black and monstrous it bulged against the western sky, a huge mountain of coal with the bankhead seemingly on top of it, a trestle beside the coal bank supporting a square-boilered locomotive with a short train of cradle cars behind it. From this distance the train looked like a column of black ants that had crawled up the stalk of a gigantic plant and died there.

This was the visible colliery. Without framing their thoughts, both Mollie MacNeil and her son knew that what they saw behind the wire fence was merely the product of the last two weeks of work. A hundred fathoms beneath the ground they were walking on ran the seam. Galleries like the tentacles of an octopus branched out beneath the floor of the sea itself, and it was in these galleries that the men of
the families in their neighborhood went down each day and came up again. They also knew that theirs was only one of some fifteen collieries which circled the town of Broughton. They felt lucky because theirs was so close to the sea.

Mollie and her son skirted the colliery fence, its enclosed area quiet as a church since the men had quit work, and finally they reached the main road which came from Broughton and then, after passing the colliery fence, made a right-angled turn and ran down a steep slope to a bridge over a bubbling brook. Between the bridge and the colliery, for a distance of two hundred and fifty yards, crowded so close together they looked like a single downward-slanting building with a single downward-slanting roof, were the houses of the miners' row.

Mollie looked at Alan and smiled. “There now,” she said. “We're almost home.”

Somewhere in the row was a door which they called their own, but nothing distinguished it from the doors to right or left of it. Each house was a square with a triangle set on its top. There were two doors side by side in the front of each one and on either side of the doors were single windows behind which lurked small parlors. The houses were divided in two by a common wall between the doors, behind each parlor at the back of the buildings was a kitchen, and upstairs under sharply sloping roofs were the bedrooms. The houses had all been painted the same fierce shade of iron-oxide red when they were built by the coal company; two families shared each sloping roof; all of them used a rickety board sidewalk which ran between the low doorsteps and the road. Between the sidewalk and the road was a deep ditch overgrown with thistle, burdock and coarse grass, and down the center of the road, making a right-angled turn at the corner by the colliery, ran the tracks of the tramline which bound the collieries to their heart in Broughton.

Tonight as Mollie and Alan passed the tram stop and went their way down the board sidewalk there was activity along the
whole row. Before each house, beside each low doorstep, a washtub had been set on a stool. In front of each tub a miner just back from the pit crouched, stripped to the waist, while his wife, working hard with both arms, scrubbed the coal dust off his face, neck, back, shoulders and arms. Mollie and Alan passed them one by one and Mollie exchanged greetings with some of the wives. There was a loud splashing of water and a grunting and spitting from the men as the two figures went by, but the boy saw no adventure in the scene. It had been this same way every night of his life when the weather was warm.

In the kitchen that evening, after they had finished their supper, Alan took the sea shell from his pocket and held it against his ear.

“Mummy, listen!”

He handed her the shell and she also held it against her ear. “All shells sound like that,” she said. “They remember the sea.”

“How can they remember? They're not alive.”

Her face lightened as she thought of an answer. “It was in the book we read with the birds and snakes and fish. It said that the first things that ever lived were in the sea. Are you listening, Alan? That means the shell is so old the noise in it is the oldest sound in the world.”

She was pleased because he seemed to be satisfied and for a moment she watched him as he listened to the shell. Then she looked at the alarm clock on the shelf over the table and told him it was late and past his bedtime. He got up and went upstairs slowly, knowing that because it was Saturday night his mother would be going out. Under the sharp slant of the roof he took off his shirt and hung it on a nail. Then he took off his pants and finally his shoes and stockings. He laid his shoes side by side on the floor by the head of his cot and carefully pressed down the creases in his pants before he laid them on a wooden chair. He turned the socks inside out and laid them on the back of the chair and finally took a flannelette nightgown from under his pillow and put it on. The shell
went under the pillow where the nightgown had been, he scrambled into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin and lay on his back.

“Mummy,” he called. “I'm here.”

A moment later he heard the stairs creak and then she came in and looked quickly to see how well he had disposed of his clothes.

“Now,” she said, and smiled at him as she sat on the edge of his cot. “You're all ready for sleep.”

“No. I'm not sleepy.”

“But that is the time you grow, and think how strong you must grow if your father is going to be pleased when he comes home.”

Alan's voice was muffled. “Does Father remember me?”

“Of course he does.”

“Donald's father doesn't have to remember him. He comes home every night.”

She slipped off the edge of the cot and sat down on the floor beside him, to make her serious face on a level with his. “Look at me, Alan.”

He turned on his side to face her.

“Now, don't ever, ever forget. You have one of the most special fathers of anybody you've ever heard of. He is not like Donald's father, coming home every night with the pit dust all over his face so you can't tell who he is.”

The boy began to smile.

“Archie MacNeil,” she said the name proudly. “It is something to be the son of the bravest man in Cape Breton.” She stood up and looked down at him. “But you must do your part and grow strong so he will be pleased when he comes home. It is hard for a boy not to have his father with him every night. It is hard for me, too. But think how much he misses us. Your father is so special that he had to go out into the world to do his work.”

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