I received your letter from last week but I didn’t get it until yesterday. I had some guide work that kept me away for a few days. I’ve had two fellows down from Ottawa. Good gentlemen but weak in the arms. I earned my keep on the portages. I hope to get more guiding work but Shannon says the guests aren’t coming like they used to. There’s odd jobs and Taylor Statten needs some help on his cottage. He’s teaching some boys and he’s going to take a YMCA course in the US later in June. He says he has big plans for the place.
I’ll be staying close to Mowat Lodge until I next see you again. I have my gear and sketches at your cottage. As for painting I’ve done nothing for the past while. I’m done for the summer.
I’ll inquire about Billie Bear Lodge on Bella Lake. There should be room available in later July or better in August. It’s not too far from Huntsville and we can arrange for everything there first. We can make an announcement when you get here in early July. It shouldn’t look bad to anyone. Look how many soldiers did it just before the 122nd went overseas.
The garden is good. No sun has made things slow in starting. I’ll keep an eye on it.
I better get this off to Huntsville. The Frasers give their regards.
I spent the day thinking about my grandfather. “Tam” was his name. That’s what we called him. I was named after him proper, his name was Thomas John Thomson. He died two years before I was born but I felt like I knew him. I heard a lot of stories about him – good, then not so good. Despite having same name as my grandfather, no one ever called me “Tam”. I wondered about that. But as I got older, I began to understand why the name “Tam” went to the grave with him. I often wondered why my oldest brother, George, wasn’t named after Tam. My parents waited for the third eldest son – me – before they passed down the name “Thomas John Thomson”.
Tam was a big storyteller. Always the centre of attention and the hero of every story he told. Tam was the pillar of the community in Claremont. Penniless from Scotland, he made good for himself and ended up with a house full of servants and more than enough money to make an inheritance for everyone. But later I learned Tam wasn’t such the upstanding citizen back in Scotland. Families have secrets you know and Tam had a few of them that he left behind by escaping to Canada. I learned that he not only left one child behind in Scotland, but actually two children. And from two different women at the same time. The church was forcing him to marry one of them so he came to Canada instead. His plan was to work and to send money back but he found Elizabeth Brodie from Whitby. His third, and he started over. Tam was example that you could start a new and noble life, leaving all of the other entanglements behind. Maybe not so noble, but it was a common option.
I am writing this because I am weighing what to do with Winnie. As they say, nothing makes the mind clearer than an execution in the morning. Certainly, this isn’t as dire as an execution, but it’s making me think about my options. People think it’s simple: you marry and that’s it. You send your boy off to war and that’s it. No choices and no questions. But the heaven and hell approach to life condemns people to a miserable existence. Many think that’s the way it should be. And you can see it in the eyes of people – misery. It may not be misery but I’m not sure. I don’t yet know what my options are. But one thing I need to do tonight is write a letter to Winnie.
I came down in the morning to the back kitchen for breakfast. Shannon had left, but his mother was still there with Annie. They were cleaning up the breakfast dishes and were already starting on the other meals for the day. The kitchen had the smell of braised meat. It smelled of venison, not beef. There wasn’t supposed to be any deer hunting in the Park, but since the food shortages started in the City, slaughtered deer would magically appear once in awhile. The Park Rangers had the authority to take kill from Poachers and sell it. They would sell to the lodge but it seemed more and more that the line between Poacher and Ranger was being crossed in various parts of the Park and venison was becoming rather plentiful. There was talk of a big deer kill in the fall to supply meat to the cities so the regulations were not being heeded as seriously. Bartlett knew the Rangers wanted to supplement their income and he didn’t want any labour strife on his hand. The informal trade in venison was the ideal solution. Besides, the Rangers were poisoning the wolves over the winter, and the end result was an over-population of deer. It was good to get rid of them. Plus, the deer all seemed to hang out at the Hotels where the guests would feed them, pet them and give them names like “Buck”. I’m sure it was ‘Buck’ that was being braised on the stove this very morning.
Annie knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. I could tell by the way she fussed around the kitchen. Old Mrs. Fraser knew I wanted to talk too, so she was determined to stay.
“Mom, could you bring the linens out back and hang them?” Annie called her “Mom” because Shannon did.
Old Mrs. Fraser, or “Mom”, left with the bag of linens. Estimating the time to hang them, we had about 10 minutes of private time to talk.
I looked at Annie, right into her eyes, “Annie, you know what I’m going to ask you?”
“I can understand the temptation of the already open ones, but this one was closed. I could tell it was opened.
I took a breath, “It’s an offence. Only the War Ministry can do that. Does Shannon know?”
She swallowed hard. She knew she crossed a line. It’s one thing to be a poaching Ranger. It’s another thing to be Poacher.
“Okay, let’s keep it at that. Just remember the Government takes a very dim view of profiteering and corruption. We all have to do our bit. You don’t want to lose the post office. It would be the end of the lodge.”
“I’m sorry.” Annie continued to look me in the eye. I could see the tears welling up.
Ordinarily, when men and women talked, they never looked each other in the eye directly. “Save that for the wedding vows,” I was told. But I always looked women in the eyes did because I always did it with my sisters. Because of my older sisters, I was always comfortable talking to women and striking up good friendships. The boys back at the Studio could never figure this out about me. They were always proud that they could drink and carouse and have their way with women (never looking them in the eyes), but it never occurred to them they could be friends with women too. Red-blooded artists need not always be women conquerors too. When Florence visited me she made sure to avoid the “louts in the Studio” as she called them. Once, a chap who happened be in the Studio, couldn’t stop harassing me about Florence, so I dropped him with my fists.
I have good friendships with women. It’s the same way with Annie. With Winnie too, but things got further with her. No fault on my part, but Annie was always a bit smitten by the way I treated her. I talked to her, I helped her, and mostly important, I listened to her. Unlike Shannon, I never felt the need to hear my voice continually. Indeed, I always prefered to let others talk. It was the same with Daphne Crombie. I enjoyed her company, but her husband took notice, and decided that they better convalesce elsewhere.
I looked back at Annie. She knew by the expression of my face and the tone of my voice, this was serious business.
“Promise me, Annie. This is between me and Winnie. Promise.”
By then, the door flew open and Old Mrs. Fraser rushed in hollering. Turns out she stepped on a newly settled hornets’ nest out back. Hornets’ nest appear in the darnedest places. This one happened to be in a hole at the by the bottom of the clothesline pole. A good soaking with kerosene and a match should fix that nest in short order. I’ll leave the glory of administering hellfire to hornets to Shannon. Thankfully, “Mom” only had a couple of stings. Nothing serious. I remember once hearing about the Rangers coming across a dead camper beside a nest. He had hundreds of stings and died from them. He was dead about a week and they could no longer recognize him when they found him.
I left the commotion in the kitchen and went out front to the lobby and then to the front verandah. I could barely see the lake. A fog and mist had descended from over the hills and it was turning into a persistent rain. This spring has been cold and terrible so far. And there were no signs that anything was getting better.
I needed to write a letter back to Winnie. This wasn’t a letter I could dash off in a moment. I had to consider my words and what my words meant. I also had to think about the letter getting into the wrong hands. I had to write it like the boys’ letters from the front. To get through the censors, they couldn’t write where they were or what they were doing. So it had to be words that, if fallen into enemy hands, meant nothing. But these letters from the boys, despite having all of concrete facts stripped out of them, still communicated everything to their their loved ones.
I needed they day to think about it. I needed to write the letter in time to catch the mail train tomorrow. It was over a week since the date of Winnie’s letter and I knew she would be more frantic as each day passed. There’s no telling what might happen or what she might do. If I don’t write by tomorrow, I could expect as much as a posse arriving from Huntsville to force me to make good on the situation.
Like the fog and mist that descended from over the hills, the afternoon had passed in a blur. So did dinner and the evening. There was talk at the table, but I can’t remember any of it. I just kept thinking about the deer formerly known as ‘Buck’ being on my plate.
I had a hell of a hangover this morning. The whisky we had yesterday hit me hard but at least I didn’t go blind. That happened numerous times after the Temperance Act went into effect and people started making their own alcohol Sometimes the alcohol wasn’t right and people would go blind drinking it.
Officially, Camp Nominigan wasn’t supposed to provide alcohol to guests. That was the Bartlett’s law in the Park but the lodge manager always kept a few bottles on hand when the opportunity arose. Especially, the Americans. They would pay handsomely for a bottle and leave a big tip afterwards.
John and Etienne left in the morning and took the coach to Algonquin Station. They were gone long before I was up. They had brought all their gear with them in their rooms last night so they didn’t have to bother me when they left. I had the camping gear and the extra canoe by the lake. A camp fire pit was close by, so I made breakfast and after packed all I could into my canoe covering with a rubber sheet. The rain was little more than a mist, but by the time I finished it was a steady rain.
Lowrie was still sleeping like a little rabbit in a hutch. I wanted to get on my way. I roused him.
“Lowrie, I’m leaving now. Take the tent back with you. We’ll get the other canoe in the next day or so.”
“Okay, Tom. My head hurts…”
“Sleep it off, Lowrie. No rush to check out.”
I had to leave Shannon’s canoes. It wasn’t unusual to leave the canoes at the different lodges and this wasn’t the exception. The canoe would eventually make it back to its home. If a Nominigan or Highland canoe shows up at Mowat Lodge, I’ll canoe down to make the switch.
I wanted to leave Nominigan fast, but I didn’t want to go back to Mowat Lodge right away. I was dreading what was in the letter. I felt like today was the last day of my own possibilities so I spent the whole day on Tea Lake fishing. They call it Tea Lake because the water is brown. Mostly from the fast running water coming in from Canoe and Smoke Lake churning up the junk from the bottom. There were logs littered along the shore, decaying and bobbing about. This probably makes the water brown too.
It was after 9pm when I finally returned back to Mowat Lodge. The clouds were so thick that despite the late sunset, it felt like the light of a late October evening. I pulled the canoe up onto the dock and out of nowhere Shannon appeared.
“Tom, I was waiting for you”
“Why?” I kept working on pulling up my gear. I had to pull everything out of the wrapped rubber sheet. Everything was pretty much soaked.
“Mark Robinson came by. Said Bartlett heard you were drinking at Nominigan. The guides aren’t supposed to drink.”
I lied, “It wasn’t me. It was Lowrie.”
“I figured as much,” Shannon came closer. “Mark told me to say not to worry this time. Next time Bartlett might want to teach you a lesson.”
“Thanks for the message, Shann. Can you help me with my canoe?”
“Where’s the other one?”
“Still at Nominigan. I’ll get it in the next day or so.”
“Tom, they’re expensive things. If I lose one, it’ll have to come off your account.”
I was annoyed by his tone. I didn’t really care that much about money or accounts. I trusted that people would return things. But a lecturing by a profligate penny-pincher was almost too much to bear.
“Can you just help me with the canoe?”
With that interjection he grabbed the other end of the canoe and yanked it with his big arms. It caught me off balance, and I tripped over the fire grate that was between the dock and shed.
“You’ll have to move that damn fire grate. I’ll be the death of someone.”
“Yessir.” That was Shannon’s way of saying, “You don’t tell me want to do, I’ll do it in my own damn time.”
We walked up to the Lodge. The path was muddy and slippery. It was miserable for this time of year. It was supposed to be full summer but the wood stoves were still on at night to drive the moisture and cold out. I had heard about ice-ages. Maybe we were entering another ice-age.
I first had to go to privy out back and then I went up to my room. There it was – Winnie’s letter. And there the words jumped out at me:
” It is a certainty.”
It’s a certainty now. The variable is now a constant. A milestone. A milestone around my neck. I wasn’t really thinking about the situation during the day, but in reality I was thinking about it beneath the surface. Out of nowhere the plan started to emerge: I had to leave, but I had to do it in a way that nobody knew. It had to be a secret. I could elope with Winnie but I wasn’t sure that was the best thing either. Maybe I should go myself. I had to decide which way. Then I realized the plan for now. Say to Winnie that we’re going to elope. She’ll keep that a secret and if that is what happens, we can go West. But if for some reason, something doesn’t work out, I can go West or more likely, South, on my own. Keep options open, they say.
I had a closer look at the envelope. I had been opened. I could see the smeared glue that could only happen by steaming it open. The paper was mottled too. A sure sign of what was transpiring between me and Winnie was no longer a secret. The only true secret I had was what I was finally planning to do in the end.