I’m writing this early in the morning of the last day of the old year of 1916. It’s Sunday morning but it still feels like Saturday night. It was past midnight when we returned from the soiree at Annan Hall. I walked back with Harkness family – Tom, Elizabeth and Jessie. They went up to bed but I decided to stay down in the front room to smoke my pipe and reflect on the day before I went to bed.
I like sitting in this front room. There are shelves of books from floor to ceiling. It feels like a library, in fact it was for a period of time. Tom’s father, Gideon was the organizing force behind the Lakeshore library association and offered this room as the library. Old Mrs Harkness was quite pleased at this arrangement. Not only did this collection of books cater to her refined taste of literature, the regular visits from people up the line kept her up to date on all of the concession gossip. In due time, when books became cheaper, the Lakeshore association combined with Leith, the collection moved to the church basement and the responsibility taken over by the temperance society. Old Mrs. Harkness no longer could get her gossip. I feel that libraries must have souls or leave spirits behind. Although the library is no longer in this house, I can feel that there still is something otherworldly here.
Earlier in the day, Tom and Elizabeth were preoccupied with getting ready for the soiree. The phone kept ringing off the hook and Elizabeth was making calls to the other ladies to make sure there were enough desserts and for others to arrive early enough to set things up (arrive at 7pm for the start of the soiree at 8pm). For the rest of the morning, I decided to get out of the way by taking a walk to Slattery’s Mill. I wanted to see the waterfall and took my sketching book to make a drawing. I got back by noon, in time for dinner. Jessie was helping with Elizabeth’s desserts and dinner.
We made it to Annan Hall by 7pm. I offered to come along and set up. They were expecting almost a hundred people to come so it was going to be a crowded affair. The recent opening of Annan Hall was symbol of progress and this soiree was a mark of this progress. The farms in the area were getting pretty well-equipped. The Annan Hall signalled the beginning of a new era and end of an old era – the era of the barn dance.
When we arrived there were a few other women and girls already setting up. I recognized Mrs. Julyan and her daughter Louise. They live below the hill on the farm beside John Harkness (Gideon’s brother and Tom’s uncle). I remembered Louise as a little girl when I went out West to Seattle. That was fifteen years ago and, now, well into her twenties, she’s blossomed into a fine woman. I wondered why she wasn’t married off yet. When she told me she was taking classes to become an artist, I laughed. That explained why she wasn’t married. Men don’t want to marry women artists. Florence McGillivray told me that being a women artist is the recipe for spinsterhood. Louise replied that the answer to that conundrum was for the woman to marry another artist. My response, “That’s the way to guarantee that both live in utter abject poverty.”
I asked Louise where she was taking lessons. I was astonished to hear that she was taking lessons from Charles M. Manly at the Ontario College of Art. I know Manly and consider him to be the worst painter in Canada. I didn’t say anything and kept the conversation going. I learned that she was staying at the YWCA on Elm St in Toronto and was returning on January 2nd – the same day as me. “We’ll sit together, then!” she pronounced. I smiled. She’d be good company on the train.
Our conversation got cut short by a loud bang that came from the stage. A stack of wooden chairs brought up from the floor fell over. The chairs all tumbled off the stage and onto the floor. A kid of about twelve years of age had a shocked and sheepish look on his face betraying that he was the culprit of this unfortunate event. I stepped over, quickly scooped the chairs up and winked at him as I set them back on the stage. He smiled with relief and began to push the chairs to the back of the stage. As they slid on the stage floor, the chairs gave out an awful screeching and chattering noise, not less unpleasant than fingernails on the slate board. His mother scolded him and he was relieved from providing further assistance.
The floor cleared of chairs, we pulled the piano across to be close to side door. I always wondered why the piano had to be close to the side door for dances such as these. Maybe for the necessity of a quick exit if the crowd turned against the poor pianist. My guess it was for the occasional waft of necessary fresh air. The smoke would get pretty thick as the evening progressed and the last thing you wanted were musicians with an insufficiency of oxygen.
At eight, the crowds came in. The drill shed across the road was filled with the arriving horses and so was the general store stable. The music and dance began, and the shouts and laughter were loud that they could be heard throughout the village.
At ten, the desserts came out and the so did the tea. The dainty sandwiches were cut into fancy shapes (and with no crust). There were salads, cakes, cookies, brownies and taffy. Someone brought one of those awful carrot-jelly dishes and I felt its presence in the hall. I made sure to avoid it at all cots. There was bottled coke (supplied by the association – only one allowed per guest), lemonade and fruit punch. There was no liquor as temperance was in high fashion. But liquor was available – if you discreetly exited the side door, as I witnessed the pianist do numerous times between musical numbers.
Several times, I joined the band playing the violin. That earned me the right to exit the side door to enjoy the special refreshment. Since the band was playing on the floor and not on the stage, it was easy to join in, melt away into the crowd, or exit the side door.
The evening was loud and fun and and enjoyed by everyone. We stopped at midnight, and had everything back in order before 1 am. Technically, it was Sunday, and we should not have been doing that sort of work on the Lord’s Day, but during the holidays, it was permissible to extend a few extra hours of Saturday into Sunday.
Back at the Harkness house, with a few quiet moments to myself, I realized my inability to sleep didn’t arise from the events of the day but from the creeping anticipation of returning to Toronto to work on my canvases. I am thinking about how to finish the one I had on the easel. I am experimenting with a different way to colour the sky. I wouldn’t be able to scrape that off now. I would have to paint over it if I didn’t like it. I’m thinking what to do with these canvases. Hardwoods didn’t sell in Montreal. I am wondering if I should even bother with the spring exhibition. Maybe I should give up the painting business altogether.