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Excerpt for The Witchin' Canoe by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Witchin’ Canoe

By Mel Bossa


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2019 Mel Bossa

ISBN 9781634867894

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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This is my interpretation of an old lumberjack folktale popularized in 1891 by Honoré Beaugrand, founder of the French Canadian newspaper La Patrie and mayor of Montreal in 1886. His tale La Chasse Galerie still captures the imagination of readers today. As for the two lovers in my own tale, they are inspired by Quebec's most tragic and beloved poet, Emile Nelligan, Emile, the sensitive and troubled son of a rough-edged Irishman and a French Canadian lady, was often divided between two loyalties. In 1899, he was interned for madness. He was nineteen years old. This is my modest homage to him.

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The Witchin’ Canoe

By Mel Bossa

Chapter 1: Montreal 1886, The Flood

McGauran didn’t get much rest last night, and though he tries to stay awake, the gentle rocking of the canoe is slowly putting him to sleep. For a moment, he surrenders to the weariness, and with his eyes closed, imagines he’s somewhere out west, beyond the great plains, in a log cabin he built with his own two hands, instead of drifting down this flooded street in the human swamp they call Griffintown: The city beneath the hill.

“Watch it there, O’Dowd,” Linus warns him with a smile in his voice. “Paddling works better with your peepers open. And by the way, you got arms the size of tree trunks, so why am I doing all the work here?”

“Sorry about that.” McGauran quickly resumes his paddling. A few feet away, around Prince Street, he spots old man Waits perched up on a rotten caboose, playing the fiddle like it’s Christmas Eve. In Saint-Anne’s ward, even a flood is cause for celebration. It means a couple of days off work—a break from the grinding monotony.

With the warmer spring weather melting the ice, the Saint-Lawrence River swelled over its banks, bringing devastation into their neighborhood. Some say this is the worst flood the city has ever known. Folks have been up all night, resting only during Sunday mass, and the moment Father Hayes gave the parishioners his blessing, everyone hurried out of church to organize the cleaning crews.

McGauran glances down into the water but looks away from the waste and filth drifting by. Outdoors privies have overflowed and people are going to get sick again. Thousands have already died in this supposed land of hope. Ten years ago, typhoid fever took his infant brother and sister. Then last year, he lost his father to the Red Death. And though his mother barely escaped the smallpox outbreak, she still refuses to be vaccinated, as most of the folks around here do.

Under his brown derby hat, Linus’s freckled face turns grim. “I don’t think my baby sister’s gonna make it to her first birthday. Poor thing. She doesn’t even have a mother to nurse her.”

McGauran doesn’t know what to say. He’s never been good with words. What he could do for Linus’s baby sister, he did this morning. After church, he offered to take Linus to the O’Donnells’ for some of that disinfecting powder his mother says is supposed to keep sickness away from a home. Chloride of lime, they call it.

“Hey, by the way, GT is hiring again,” Linus says, changing the subject. “I can put in a good word for you. I have some clout there now, ‘cause of my uncle’s promotion. I’m sure they’d be willing to forget what you did last year.”

“No, Linus, don’t even ask him. It’s not worth it. Don’t associate your name with mine. You got all those brothers and sisters to feed.” McGauran paddles harder. “Just forget it. Don’t make things worse for yourself.” Last August, he got involved in a violent strike out by the canal. So since then, jobs don’t come easy around town. Anyway, he doesn’t want to work for the Grand Trunk railroad company. Can’t stand to be indoors all day, hunched over a machine for hours on end, building pieces for a train he’ll probably never ride. “I’m thinking of going off to the lumber camps this winter.”

“You’re a big guy, Mac, but that’s rough work.” Linus shakes his head. “Worse than the docks.”

“The docks aren’t that bad,” he lies. He hates the steamboats, the noise, the dumb routine of lifting and lugging. He always feels like a beast of burden down there. “And, Linus, you don’t even work for GT. You pour liquor for a living, remember?”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Linus retorts with a playful smirk, his green eyes lighting up. “I tend to men’s spirits with spirits.” Ever since he and Linus were kids, Linus has always known how to find humor in their common misery.

McGauran can’t help smiling a little and the smile feels strange on his face. He’s been in a bad mood for weeks. Sickness, death, rioting, and political upheaval are all the city has to offer him. He says a quick silent prayer. Lord, get me out of here. Help me. Show me how to get out of here.

As they maneuver through the traffic of various canoes, makeshift boats, and people, McGauran notices the Callaghans floating by on wooden planks they’ve roped together. The Callaghans live in a side street by the Darling Foundry, in a rickety old house the city keeps threatening to tear down. The luck of the Irish.

Right.

He takes pity on them. “Sir,” he calls out, as they approach his house, “you can have my canoe. I don’t need it anymore. It’ll be easier for you to get around.”

Immediately, the old man and his young son jump off their planks and trudge through the water to reach the canoe. The river water is thigh high in some places. The Callaghans thank and bless him profusely, and after Linus and McGauran have climbed out of the canoe, the old man and his son paddle off in it, promising to return the boat by sundown. But McGauran doesn’t mind parting with it. Last week, he found the old canoe propped up on a crooked fence. After a few days, no one had claimed it, so he lugged the boat to his courtyard, thinking he’d probably need it around flood season. Turns out he was wise. Maybe his luck is changing, after all.

When they’ve reached the red brick duplex they share on Young Street, Linus turn to him and tips his hat. “McGauran O’Dowd, you gave them your boat. And you call me a bleeding heart.”

He shrugs. “It’s Sunday, so I figured I’d do something nice, right?”

“Yeah, well, it’s gonna take a little more than a canoe to get you into Heaven,” Linus teases him with a grin.

“Amen.” McGauran pushes the door open into the narrow staircase leading up to Widow Leary’s home where he and his mother are boarding.

“Hey, Mac, my sister asked about you again,” Linus says in a casual tone, though his eyes say more. “Rose and me can chaperon. We could take a stroll. Liza would fancy that a lot. She’s been sewing a new dress all week. You know…she’s been downhearted since our Ma passed.”

Uneasy, McGauran pauses in the doorway. The whole neighborhood is conspiring to fix he and Liza Brogan up. Especially his mother and Linus. Ever since Liza turned eighteen last winter, people have been asking about his intentions. “Well…I’ll see if I can get away,” he says, entering the staircase before Linus can add anything else.

He remembers Father Hayes’s sermon this morning. The priest believes the small pox outbreak and flood are a punishment to the men for all the loafing, brawling, and drinking they’ve been doing in the last year. But he could have sworn Father Hayes was looking directly at him while he delivered his long oration on the importance of resisting the Devil’s temptations.

Time is running out. He’s twenty years old. He needs to get out of this city before the year is done, or he’ll be a married man come New Year’s Day, making Liza Brogan one unhappy and…unsatisfied bride.

Then everyone will know what he is.

* * * *

Chapter 2: Widow Leary’s Tale

Standing over a pot of warm water, McGauran leans in closer to the cracked mirror he nailed to the wall above the wood-burning stove. He’s already nicked his chin twice, and wants to toss the water, blade, and everything else out the window, but he needs to look his best today, so the orange stubble is coming off. As he presses the blade’s edge to his upper lip, he catches the look in his dark brown eyes, and once again, doubt weakens his resolve.

What if Gédéon Latendresse, that ruthless French Canadian notary and businessman, throws him off his property today for showing up at his fancy house without a proper appointment?

McGauran rinses the blade, thinking over his options. He has to try to better their financial situation. There’s no way he’s spending another winter breaking ice for the city. And with the wages he’s been earning at the Saint-Gabriel locks this summer, he’ll be swimming in debt before August.

No, he’ll have to convince the notary that he’s capable of toughing it out in the woods for six months. The last time he worked for Latendresse, he was too young, and hadn’t done so well, coming short of the quota. It was because of that whole…incident with that young lumberjack. It had confused, and yes, thrilled him, but influenced his work. He’ll never let that happen again. Nobody knows about what he did with the young man out there, anyway. Well, except for Father Hayes. He should have never confessed to it! He was a fool to think the priest would absolve him of that sin. Why did he go and do something so reckless?

In a great show of noise, Widow Leary’s boys come running up the stairs and into the room, hollering and bickering, but when they see McGauran standing there in his braces and shirtsleeves, they both turn quiet, eyes growing big as chestnuts.

In the mirror, the sunlight throws copper streaks across McGauran’s dark red hair and he wonders what the boys think of his presence in their home. Some folks say hair as deep a shade of red as his is the mark of the Devil. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting some schooling today?” he asks the boys. It’s Monday after all, and the Leary brothers are but eight and ten, too young to be working. They still have a year or two left of school before their mother sends them off to the nail or shoe factories. In ten years, these two boys will be hardened men already. Suddenly, he feels an ache in his heart. He wishes he could change their fate. But he can barely manage his own.

“No school today,” one of them says. “Sister Hairy-Chin is dead.” He’s obviously the bravest one. The youngest. His eyes are like two blue marbles, and smart, too. “Ma says you’re living with us now. That we’re giving you charity.”

McGauran flinches at the word. Charity? No, he intends on paying his share of rent. But as he’s going to answer the little brat, Widow Leary walks in, carrying a load of rags and a pail of water. “Out you go!” she yells, her commanding voice booming through the dusty, cluttered room. “Don’t wanna see your faces until sundown! And don’t go any further than the Victoria Square, and don’t go into the Langlois house. They’ve been quarantined! Don’t go near the stables either!”

“But we’re hungry,” the older boy says. “Real—”

“What are you complaining about?” She gives McGauran a quick and troubled look, but then her expression hardens again. “You two had enough lard and molasses this morning to last you until next Lent, now off you go, you hear?”

That’s a lie. They all shared some bread and a bit of pork spread. He’s going to have to ask John Baldwin for more credit at the store. At a hundred percent interest.

Whining like starved puppies, the boys scramble out of the room, their thin beef soles slapping the stairs all the way down to the street. McGauran wishes he had a few royal banknotes in his pocket to treat the boys to a fancy dinner in the city.

Widow Leary drops the pail on the stove, knocking over his tin pot, spilling foamy water. “I have work to do, Mac,” she says, shoving her large figure between the stove and him. “These here rags ain’t gonna wash themselves. Now gimme your face, so I can finish the job and you’ll be out of my way.” She grabs his chin and lifts his face to the light. “Only a few patches left.” Her round and pleasant face is gleaming with sweat and her large bosom heaves under her corset. She wears the same brown dress she’s worn for days. It’s stained and stiff in some places. No lace at the collar. No bustle at the back.

McGauran tries to escape. “I can shave my own face.”

“Hush now.” She snatches the blade out of his hand. “I used to shave my Fergus’s face, God rest his soul.” With care and efficiency, she begins to shave his left cheek and then the spot he missed on his chin. Brown curls frame her face, sticking to her pink skin. “Now you go out there today and no more loafing. You bring me back some rent money, you hear?” Her breath smells of rum. He can’t judge her for it. She does what she can to get through her days. She’s all alone in the world. Barely getting by on church charity. “I’ll talk to that sinning landlord as soon as he comes by to collect the rent and you and your mother will be back in your home before la Fête-Dieu.”

“Yes, ma’am, but see, that’s in a few weeks.”

“I’ll call the health office on him. Why should we live like horses?” She blows a breath up into her hair. “Eight dollars a month and with no…” She clears her throat, obviously too proper to say the words. Water-closet.

They all share an outdoor privy in the courtyard. They have no running water. Meanwhile, up the hill, the rich folk are living it up. How many deaths in the Golden Square Mile? He suspects not very many.

She throws the blade in the pot and shoves a rough towelette into his hands. “Look at you,” she says, eyeing him over as though he were a slab of expensive meat. “You’re a big fine man with strength and wits to spare. Remember we Irish come from fine stock. Our men built all those steamers and trains, and think of your father who put together that big old bridge for the Queen.” She gently slaps his face. “Don’t break your mother’s heart. She’s already lost two babies and a husband. Get out there and swallow that shameful pride of yours she’s been telling me all about.”

McGauran wipes his face with the towel and grabs the tin pot. So his mother and the widow are already sharing stories. “I intend on making some good money this winter.”

Widow Leary is hard at work, dumping rags in the simmering water on the stove. “What do you plan on doing? A man can’t live on selling soap alone. And I don’t have enough meat scraps to get you going again.”

Before the flood ruined his product, he was making his own soap with leftovers, then selling it around Saint-Anne’s ward. Some men laughed at him, but he got his mother through the winter, didn’t he?

Uneasy, McGauran steps away, but where can he go in this place? There’s no other room for him to be. The two bedrooms are taken up by the widow, her sons, and his mother. He sleeps on a cot in the main room which serves as her kitchen and workshop. Every hour of the day and part of the nights, the neighborhood women are cooking, cleaning, mending clothes, commiserating, and praying. There’s nowhere for him to sit and think. Never mind anything else. He’s been reduced to cleaning himself in the canal at dawn. But that water will make him sick.

“Well, answer me, boy,” she says, her hands disappearing into the hot water. “What’s your big idea?”

“I’m gonna go to Gatineau.” He clears his throat, gazing around at the soot-black walls. The room depresses him. No furniture, but a greasy table and eight mismatched chairs. A wooden stove. A few side tables holding dirty gas lamps full of dead bugs. A thin brownish rug. He can almost smell the disease in here.

“The shanties?” Widow Leary scrubs harder, her cheeks reddening from the effort. “You’re fit for Saint-Jean de Dieu, if you think that’s proper work for a man. Living with a crew of stinking bodies, hacking wood all day, and catching lice. Surviving on hard bread and—”

Rum. And don’t be sending me off to the asylum just yet.” He winks and leans his shoulder on the wall, near the picture of Christ with his golden hair and tender blue eyes. The only decoration in the room. “Or at least, not until I’ve paid off my debt to you.”

She’s holding back a laugh, her rounded shoulders shaking a little. “Oh, to think your saint of a mother named you after a priest.” She shakes a dripping finger at him. “Get outta here before I ruin these rags.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of my mother,” he says, more seriously, before stepping away to his mother’s room.

“Oh, don’t you thank me for doing God’s will,” she singsongs behind him, her Irish brogue coming through. “But wait a minute, young man. Haven’t you been going around the parish, up and down these streets, talking about workers’ rights and now you’re joining up with a sawmill?”

McGauran shoots her a look over his shoulder. “Never said so. Gonna be one of Gédéon Latendresse’s men. Gonna go out to his house today and ask him for a job.”

Her eyes widen and she quickly crosses herself.

“What is it?”

She shivers exaggeratedly. “That man is hexed. That whole family is.”

He tries not to laugh. “Now, Mrs. Leary, you don’t believe in all those old tales, do you?”

“Oh, this isn’t an old tale, Mac.” She lowers her voice, as though someone could be listening. “It’s a true story. True as I stand here.” Again, she crosses herself. “Folks say Gédéon Latendresse was a bad seed. Nothing like his brother George junior. Now listen here, Gédéon fell in love with his brother’s fiancée, a girl from south of the border, believe it or not. Some fine American lady. Talk about coveting, huh? The boys’ father, George senior, was afraid the two brothers would kill each other over the girl, so he sent Gédéon up to the logging camps to teach his sinning son a lesson and make sure George junior could marry his gal without incident. Now, this is where it gets interesting, Mac.” She pauses, for effect he supposes. “At the camp, Gédéon received a letter from a friend, telling him the wedding was planned for New Year’s Day, after the traditional father’s blessing and all. Oh, well, now, Big Baptiste, that French Canadian with the limp, he was there at the shanties that night, and he swears that Gédéon turned into a lunatic and made a pact with the Devil so he could get to the girl before the morning and try to change her mind.” Mrs. Leary lowers her voice until he can barely hear her. “He rode the witchin’ canoe. From the lumber camps. It was on New Year’s Eve. Landed right here in Montreal. Oh, I think, twenty years ago.”

He’s heard this tale before. Something about a flying canoe. A spell. The Devil. Lonely lumberjacks wanting to come home for a night. La chasse galerie, the French call it.

She grabs his arm. “Listen,” she says, pushing something into his coat pocket. “Folks say Gédéon cheated that night. Broke one of the rules. And now the Devil’s come back for his due. You’ll need this if you go into that house.”

He feels for her gift inside his pocket. Beads. It’s her rosary. “All right,” he sputters, not knowing what else to say. Superstitions. All of it.

“They’re all a bunch of devil-worshipers, that’s what they are.” Widow Leary stares out the dirty window pane by the stove. “Oh, and the worst kind, too.” She scrunches her face. “French Canadian bourgeoisie.”

* * * *

Chapter 3: Charmed

Walking up Saint-Denis Street, McGauran slowly begins to lose his confidence. How can these people live in their ornamented mansions, riding glittering carriages up and down these paved streets, while his mother toils eleven hours a day over a machine in a shoe factory which affords her no sunlight or fresh air?

How fair is that?

What do they have that he doesn’t? He knows things, too. He can read and write just as good as these people can, maybe even better. His mother taught him, as her adoptive mother had taught her. And he’s visited the Fraser Institute. He’s even read some books. History, mostly. And some papers on botany, too. A few science journals. He’s learned things in the last years. He’s no fool.

Maybe he should have stayed ignorant and pious. Why does he have to question everything so much? Father Hayes tells him it’s a sin…all this pride.

Mulling over these thoughts, McGauran quickly reaches the famous Saint-Louis Square. A water reservoir used to be here, before they moved it up to the southern slope of the Mount Royal, and now in its place is this quaint little park the French Canadian aristocrats have recently claimed as their territory. The rich sure know how to embellish their quarters. He can imagine Widow Leary’s boys having a place like this to run around in. How thrilled they’d be. How grateful, too. Grass and trees are a rare sight where he comes from. Never mind flowers.

The spring air is sweet in these parts, and as he walks across the square, digging his hands into his pockets, McGauran can feel people watching him from their benches. His reefer coat is tattered. His trousers are a bit too short, and loose around the ankles, out of fashion. When he passes two young women giggling coyly under their parasols, he glances over his shoulder at the prettier of the two. She blushes, and the two hurry away, skirts rustling over the tips of their patent boots.

He could seduce them, he knows it. Women, rich or not, stare at him whenever he walks by. He hears the local girls whispering in church. Sees their hungry eyes on him whenever he kneels for communion. He’s heard the older women in town call him the best catch of Saint-Anne’s ward.

What’s wrong with him that he can’t desire any of those girls back? How simple his life could be, if only he were a normal man. He’s prayed and prayed about it, but nothing has changed. If anything, his lust for men has become almost too strong to contain. At times, he fears it.

How long before he gives in to it again and gets caught?

Nervously, McGauran adjusts his plain black necktie, which is beginning to feel like a tightrope around his neck and hurries his pace. Now isn’t the time to be thinking about this. He needs to keep his mind on why he’s here. Heart in mouth, he crosses the square to the Latendresse home on Laval Avenue. John Baldwin told him what to look for and gave him the door number. The house is a mansion, and he has to pause to stare at it from the other side of the narrow street. The three-story grandiose home is built of gray stone and expensive dark bricks on which ivy has begun to cling. The front garden is thriving with all kinds of shrubbery, wild flowers, and newly planted trees, and like painted eyes, the house’s many large windows are flanked with shutters that gleam black in the sun. A cobblestone side way leads to the lower part of the house which has its own side door. He suspects that’s where the servants and cooks live. White marble columns surround the wide balcony, but what impresses him the most is the tower standing a story higher than the rest of the house. With its pointed black roof, it reminds him of a castle. The windows in the tower look directly at the park. Whose room?

Climbing up to the heavily ornamented wrought-iron porch, he pauses to take another shallow breath. Finally, he knocks on the black-lacquered door. That’s when he realizes he isn’t wearing gloves. A proper gentleman always wears gloves.

But then again, his coat is a size too small for him. He isn’t fooling anyone.

A man with a thin but attractive face, the valet McGauran supposes, cracks the door open. At the sight of him, the man’s golden green eyes slowly narrow as though he’s seeing someone familiar and not him. “Yes?” he inquires in a slightly nasal voice.

“I’m here for Monsieur Latendresse. He—he knows me. I’ve worked for him before. Can you please tell him that Mac O’Dowd is here to see him.” His voice jumps a little. “If you could…please. Sir.”

The valet has delicate features, a daintiness about him. “And you don’t have an appointment?”

In the house, someone is playing the piano loudly, hitting the notes at a speed he’s never heard before. For a second, McGauran loses track of his thoughts. “I—I don’t have an appointment, sir.”

“Then I’m sorry, young man.” The valet shuts the door in his face. But not too hard.

McGauran sighs and knocks again.

The door opens. “There’s a plague going around. I don’t wish to have you forcibly removed.” But again, there’s a hint of kindness in the man’s face. He seems more annoyed than angry. “Off you go now.”

“Wait, see, sir, I need to see him. I know he’s hiring, and if I don’t talk with him today, I’ll miss my chance.” McGauran tries another approach, leaning in a little. “I’m desperate. I need this money.”

Qui est à la porte?” a man asks, somewhere in the house, but nearby. His voice is young and happy, full of zest.

“Go back to your practice!” With a smile, the valet snaps his head around. “And please, try not to wreck the keys!”

“I’ll do no such thing.” The young man’s face appears behind the valet’s shoulder, but before McGauran can get a good look at him, the valet shuts the door again. He hears the older man scolding the younger one in a somewhat paternal tone. There’s affection in the valet’s voice.

Again, the door opens.

This time, the young man is the one standing in the doorway. Resting his shoulder on the jamb, he gives McGauran a quizzical look. “You wish to see my uncle?” He has a charming French Canadian accent. Under his dark arched brows, his eyes are large, of a celestial gray-blue, maybe mischievous, but gentle, too. His hair, thick and black as coal, is parted to the side, swept away carelessly. He opens the door wider and gives him a bright smile. “Please, do come in.” The young man wears a tailored black frock coat over a red waistcoat threaded with gold designs and on which hangs a silver pocket watch. His shirt collar is chin high, stiff and starched, not a shadow of a stain on it. His fine silk necktie has a touch of blue in it, and McGauran can’t help noticing that it’s the same gray-blue as the young man’s eyes.

This man can’t be real. He’s a conjuration. An apparition from one of his secret nightly dreams. McGauran has never seen a more enchanting face. “Yes,” he finally answers, remembering to breathe. “I’d be eternally grateful.”

“Oh, don’t waste eternity on that.” The young man steps aside. “Well, my uncle is busy fornicating with his mistress, but I’m sure he’ll be in a generous—”

“Good Lord,” the valet says, walking up to the door, “have you no shame?” He gently grabs the young man’s elbow. “Go on, you p’tite peste.” But he’s clearly holding back a smile.

When the young man laughs, his teeth, so straight and white, shine in his mouth. “Bernard, please have Maggie bring tea and biscuits for mister…?” He stops and frowns. “Your name?”

“O’Dowd.” He tips his worn derby hat.

“Well, Mr. O’Dowd and I will be in the parlor.” The elegant host walks off, the heels of his ankle-boots clicking against the polished hardwood floor in the vestibule. “Please, take his coat and hat.”

In the azure-blue entrance, Bernard relieves McGauran of his coat and hat, and then hangs both items on the coat stand. “Where did you come from?”

Self-conscious, McGauran runs a hand through his red hair, hoping it isn’t too wild. “Uh, Griffintown, sir.”

Bernard looks him over. “I see. That area has been devastated by the flood, hasn’t it?”

“That’s right.” Among other things.

“How are the people holding up down there?”

Down there. Yes, beneath the hill. “We always make do,” he says, holding on to his pride. “We’ll get through this, too.”

“Yes, but with that terrible outbreak—”

“I’m not sick, if that’s what you mean. And I’m not gonna get sick either.” So far, he hasn’t told anyone about the vaccine. Not even his mother. But what does he care if the government doctor stuck cow blood or whatever in him? He’ll sort it out with God later. Right now, he wants more life. “I got vaccinated last year,” he says, real low, unfastening the first button of his shirt. “I can show you my scar.”

“No, no, no, that won’t be necessary,” the old man stammers, blushing. “I believe you.” He coughs dryly and steps back. “It was a wise thing to do, young man. Brave, too. But please keep your shirt on.”

Somewhere down the large hall, the young man’s musical voice is heard again. “Bernard, he’s my guest, not yours!” His boyish laughter echoes through the large house, chasing McGauran’s dark thoughts away. “Don’t be selfish!”

Bernard regains his composure. “There will be no tea or biscuits, and you will not bother the young master for more than a few minutes. He has a nervous condition and must be spared any excitement.”

Nervous condition? What does that mean exactly? He’s seen the ads in the paper advertising all sorts of bizarre treatments for women’s nerves, but can men suffer from this type of ailment, too?

“I suggest that you sit and be quiet and I will see about getting you a brief appointment with Monsieur Latendresse. Senior.”

“Thank you. That’s very generous of you.” McGauran leans back on the heels of his worn boots. “That’s all I hope for.”

“Well, then, follow me. And don’t touch anything, please.”

As they make their way down the luxurious hallway, McGauran’s heart races like a horse at the tracks. He gapes around at the crowded hall cluttered with furniture, foot lamps, statues, and various other trinkets. Paintings, all encased in large gold frames, hang loosely on every papered wall in a disorganized manner. He wants to stop and look at the one of the ballerina dancers, but Bernard is walking fast ahead. Then the valet turns to glance at him over his thin shoulder. “That’s a Degas. Do you know the Impressionists?”

He hasn’t read much about art.

“It’s all about the light, Mr. O’Dowd. The beauty it reveals.” Bernard stops. “I’ve heard that Monet settled in a garden home in Giverny where he paints the same lily pond over and over. Obsession can lead to marvelous things, but it can destroy an artist’s mind, don’t you agree?”

No one has ever bothered to ask him such questions. McGauran thinks about it for a moment, then says, “Well, it’s difficult to create something that wasn’t there before, so I suppose it would make a man want to get it right, absolutely right.”

The valet watches him and smiles kindly. “Very astute observation.” He continues down the hall, which now begins to separate into a narrower passage leading to more rooms at the right, and a wide, deep-red carpeted staircase that turns and opens into a beautiful dark-wood balustrade circling the second-floor landing.

The walls in this part of the house are covered with golden oak and glimmer under the light of a low hanging chandelier. McGauran stares up at the stunning crystal piece above his head. Those aren’t candles in there, but glass bulbs.

“Monsieur Latendresse had the whole house wired with electricity last year. No more awful gas lamps or kerosene oil in this house.”

Electricity…Around the quarter, people say men died because of those wires. Shocked to death.

“Oh, here is the telephone. But please, don’t touch it.”

McGauran stares at the box hooked up to the wall, frowning at its bells and wires. How can people talk to each other through this apparatus? He still doesn’t completely understand how the telegraph machine works. Everything is moving so fast these days. He’ll have to remember all the details so he can tell his mother later tonight. She won’t believe he was inside such a house.

“The music room.” Bernard stops by an open door. In there, an upright piano, deeply polished and catching the light, waits to be played again. All around the instrument, silk red and green couches woven with gold threads, glitter in the sunlight. So much gilded gold and bronze in this house, it confuses his senses.

A king could live here. Or a prince.

Is that what that young man is?

“Mister O’Dowd.” Further down the hall, Bernard signals impatiently. “I will be very near,” he says, showing him into the room. “Do we understand each other?”

“Uh, yes, sir.” Not knowing what to expect, McGauran peeks into the room. The furniture in there is all white-lacquered, lovely—almost feminine. Intricate grapevines have been carved and painted into the chair seats. The pale green velvet drapes are pulled open and sunlight streams through the large windows. Potted plants and flowers of all kinds line the sill.

The young man stands at the window, with his back slightly turned to him, his profile bathed in sunlight. For a moment, McGauran’s attention roams over him. There’s grace in this man’s lines. A finesse to his movements. When McGauran steps into the room, the lights switch off, and then all at once, turn on again. A little taken aback, he frowns.

But oblivious to the event, the man touches a purple flower on a dark green plant. “This is an African Violet. They’re very delicate. Usually, the mother plant likes to be near its offspring, like this.” His fingers gently go from plant to plant as he names each one. “Begonia. Jasmine. Another Strepto—um, Streptocarpus, yes.” He looks up and smiles. “That’s a difficult one. I rarely get it right.”

“They’re nice.” He wishes he had more words.

“Please, sit down.” The young man points to one of the four chairs circling a white-wood table covered with lace. He glances up at the door where the valet is still standing. “Bernard, let my uncle know that Mr. O’Dowd is here for him.” He raises a thick and sculpted eyebrow. “Et le thé?”

“It’s not five o’clock,” Bernard retorts.

“Oh, please, to hell with the British. Call it resistance tea.”

“Fine. Fine.” Surprisingly, Bernard leaves the room. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The young man’s presence as gentle as it is, is also commanding.

“Please sit down. I insist.”

McGauran stares at the chair for a second and then eases himself into it. When the wood creaks under his bulk, he feels awkward and clumsy. At least he bathed in the canal this morning and his clothes are clean. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands and tries not to watch the door. Most of all, he tries not to stare at the young man’s beautiful, trusting face.

The fear, ugliness, and death of the last year seem not to have reached this house.

The man sits with his legs crossed, the white button spats of his shoes showing under his ankle-fitted pants. For a brief moment, his gray-blue eyes hesitate over McGauran’s hands. His hair, so thick and lustrous, shimmers blue where the light catches it.

Feeling hot under the collar, McGauran shifts his weight in the narrow chair, causing it to creak again. “I’m here for your uncle’s wood-burning business.” His voice sounds wrong and he lowers it. “Lumber.”

“Oh…the camp.” The young man watches him with a kind expression. “It’s rough business.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty tough out there.”

Young Latendresse nibbles on his bottom lip. “But I suppose the fresh air is nice. The scenery as well.”

McGauran doesn’t quite know what to make of Latendresse’s candor. “Lots of trees,” he says. “Lots of snow. That’s about it.”

Latendresse chuckles. He seems easily amused. “Yes, well, I’m certain there’s a sort of poetic charm to it.”

Feeling a little more at ease, McGauran cracks a smile. “Yeah, that’s why I’m going out there. For the poetry.”

This time, the young host laughs freely, his eyes sparkling.

The pleasure he feels at the sound of that spontaneous laughter surprises McGauran and his guard goes up again. “Your English is very good,” he says, more seriously, wanting to make conversation, yet hoping Gédéon will rescue him from this thrilling encounter before he reveals too much of himself. “For a Frenchman.”

“My mother was American.” Latendresse pauses, a slight tremor furrowing his brow. “Later,” he goes on in a soft voice, “after she died, I had a tutor.” Suddenly, he leans back in his chair, staring at something over McGauran’s shoulder. On the side table, the lamp shuts off.

“Is something wrong?” McGauran leans in a bit, ready to act.

“No, nothing. I—you’ve worked for my uncle before?” The young host keeps looking over McGauran’s shoulder with a startled expression.

Curious, McGauran checks the window. In the cobbled path that separates the house from the next, a black dog sits watching them. What kind of a dog is it? He’s never seen anything like it before. It has short ears and a flat muzzle—a chest nearly as wide as a man’s. Its eyes almost look human. “Is that animal yours?” He stands, wanting to see the dog up close.

“No…don’t go near it.”

As McGauran approaches the window, the dog runs off, dashing for the square.

“You chased him away.” The young man’s voice is close to his ear, and when McGauran turns around, he finds him standing inches away. Up close, his eyes are even more striking, large and benevolent as two silver moons, and it’s more than McGauran can take. Flustered, he quickly walks back to his chair and sits, wringing his hands.

He has to get out of this house before he makes an irreparable mistake. “I guess it doesn’t like me,” he says, trying to keep his true nature hidden. “Red hair sometimes scares people…Or dogs, I guess.”

“Your hair is so exquisite!” Flushing pink, the young man hesitates, and then says, “Oh, mon Dieu, I haven’t even properly introduced myself.” He walks back to the table where McGauran sits and extends his hand. “How rude of me. I’m so sorry. I’m Honoré.”

It’s a common French Canadian name. It’s even the mayor’s name. McGauran has heard it many times before. Yet, the name has never meant anything until now. Honoré. Yes, that’s what this young man is. Honored by God. Spoiled with beauty and riches. He shakes Honoré’s fine hand, trying not to crush his tapered fingers. “McGauran is my name. People call me Mac, but…I’m not too fond of it.”

“I thought your name was O’Dowd.” Honoré sits in the opposite chair, giving him a questioning look. There’s indeed a nervousness about him. Something in his nimble hands and the way he won’t stay still for more than a few seconds.

“McGauran O’Dowd is my full name.”

“Oh, I see. Is it a common Irish Catholic name?”

“There’s a story to it.”

“Please do tell it! I love stories! I’d be delighted to hear yours.”

Is he getting the young man too excited? What is a nervous condition, anyway?

“Well, I don’t know if you’d like it.”

“Please, I’m curious. Indulge me. No one interesting ever comes around here.”

He stares at Honoré for a moment and then shifts his weight in the chair. For some reason, he can’t refuse him this story, though it’s a private one he hasn’t shared with anyone who wasn’t Irish before. “All right, well,” he begins in a subdued voice, “my mother named me after the priest who saved her life. Up on Grosse Isle. Where they quarantined her folks. They were escaping the famine in the old country and came by on those coffin boats.”

“Coffin boats?” Honoré seems riveted. There’s no malicious curiosity in his eyes.

McGauran goes on. “See, when the timber companies sent their stock to Europe, they had empty boats on the return trip, so they decided to fill them with starving people looking to start a new life across the sea. There was a typhus outbreak. That’s where the boats got their name. From the people dying. The government stopped the boats at Grosse Isle, close to Québec city. Plenty of my people died there on that island. Most of them I guess.” How depressing is he? “It was…pretty cruel,” he adds.

“Our government did that? That is positively criminal! I’m so sorry.”

Honoré’s sincere reaction catches him off guard. “It’s not your fault. I mean, you weren’t even born.”

“Can I say something?”

Curious, McGauran frowns again. Honoré is genuinely nice to him. He hadn’t expected that from a rich man. “Yes…what?”

“Coffin was my mother’s surname.”

“Huh.”

Honoré gives him a charming smile. “And your name?” The lamp near him turns on again.

“Uh, that lamp keeps turning—”

“Oh, never mind that.” Honoré waves his comment off. “It does that all the time. Every lamp, globe and—” he points up “—chandelier in this house has a will of its own.” He raises a brow. “Tell me you story!”

Delighted by Honoré’s enthusiasm, McGauran can’t help chuckling. “Right. Well, Father McGauran, from Saint-Patrick’s parish, was a young priest assigned to Grosse Isle. He almost died there himself. He saved a lot of orphans, making sure they had homes. So when my mother heard the story, she swore she’d name her first son after that priest.”

“I’m going to write a poem about it,” Honoré whispers. “Thank you for sharing that story with me.”

They gaze at each other, and McGauran wants to break this silence, but can’t seem to look away from Honoré’s eyes, and no words come. He remembers the first time he’d held a compass in his hand. The way the magnet had showed him true north. He feels that way now.

“O’Dowd.” Gédéon Latendresse enters the room and goes straight to him. “I thought you’d joined up with the Les Chevaliers du Travail. You have some gall showing up here at my home. Why didn’t you respond to the announcement I placed in the Patrie newspaper two weeks ago?”

“I don’t read that paper, sir,” he says, tearing his gaze away from Honoré. “And I only organized a few strikes. I’m no trouble-maker.” He offers the notary his hand.

But Gédéon recoils from the touch. He glances at Honoré, something passing over his face. Suspicion? Possession? “Let’s not talk in here. My nephew needs his peace.” Tall, broad shouldered, Gédéon Latendresse is an imposing man. His hair is as dark as his nephew’s but streaked with gray and he wears a thick mustache, which hangs low over his lips. His eyes are pale as well, but not as lovely and luminous as Honoré’s. There’s a steely look in them.

McGauran remembers Widow Leary’s tale. Could this man have done what she said? Did he ride the witchin’ canoe? He sure looks like a man who could cheat the Devil out of his due.

Gédéon touches Honoré’s sleeve, and when he looks at his nephew, the ice in his eyes melt. Clearly, he’s very fond of the young man. “I’m holding a meeting tonight and I expect you to entertain us with a concerto or maybe one of your poems. So please rest today.”

“Uncle, you know how much I hate those Freemason meetings.”

“It’s not a Freemason meeting.” Gédéon winks. “And you shouldn’t speak of those meetings so casually. You wouldn’t want O’Dowd here thinking we aren’t good Catholics.”

Honoré tips his head and pouts. “Well then, tonight will be a meeting of the French Canadian chamber of commerce and I dislike those as well.”

“Oh, we should be so lucky to have one, Honoré! No, tonight, I’m holding an assembly with the members of Montreal’s historical society.” He ruffles his nephew’s thick black hair, and for a moment, McGauran is jealous of that touch. “Now will you entertain us? You know how proud you make me when you do.”

“But those men are such bores!” Honoré gives McGauran a conspirator’s smile. “And the only history they’re interested in, is the one they make.”

He can’t help smiling back at Honoré. That was a clever thing to say.

Gédéon lovingly pinches his nephew’s ear. “Behave yourself. Do you want the Brits to write all of our history?”

When Honoré laughs, the small gilded chandelier above their heads flickers, and McGauran glances up, but Gédéon turns his attention to him again. “Let’s go to my study, shall we?”

He must remember the purpose of his visit. “Yes, sir,” he says, his cheeks stinging.

“Well then, follow me. With this damn plague, I’m a few men short and you look like you’ve been eating your meat and potatoes since I last saw you.”

Not quite in control of himself, he follows the notary, but can’t help looking back at Honoré. “You play the piano very good,” he blurts out.

“Oh, that.” Honoré grins. “Well, I was hoping to drive Bernard mad for throwing out my new copy of Madame de Maupin.”

McGauran laughs, though he’s not sure who or what that is. Honoré’s smile is a tonic for his soul.

“But if you like…I could play for you some time. A more reasonable concerto.”

Honoré wants to see him again? Him?

“O’Dowd,” Gédéon shouts from the hall. “Don’t keep me waiting.”

Honoré’s lovely eyes dance with humor. “My uncle isn’t a patient man.”

“Yes…” McGauran hesitates by the door. “Goodbye.”

Honoré bows his head a little. “Goodbye, Mr. O’Dowd. Charmed to make your acquaintance.” He turns and walks to the window sill, touching the plants again. “Of course my uncle will have your address,” he says in an unsure voice, staring out at the square with his back to him. “Maybe I’ll send for you.” Near him, the floor lamp flickers, dims and then brightens strongly, and Honoré glances over his shoulder. “Would that be acceptable?” he asks, his eyes saying more. Saying so much more.

Leaning on the door, McGauran decides to take a risk, to let his true self show, if only for a moment. If only to this man. “I’d be honored,” he whispers.

The enchanting smile Honoré gives him was definitely worth the risk.

* * * *

Chapter 4: Bernard’s Warning

It’s getting late in the evening and Honoré can’t avoid going downstairs for much longer. Soon, Uncle Gédéon will summon him. The very idea of giving a piano recital for those hounds down there causes him heart palpitations and cold hands.

If only he could escape this house tonight. But what will happen if he does venture out in the dark streets? He’ll walk for a while, and then begin to feel nervous and threatened. He’ll see angry faces flash at him from under the brim of hats. He’ll hear whispers and mocking laughter. And after a few minutes, he’ll end up hurrying home like a fearful child.

What happened to the curious boy he used to be? The boy who would go sliding down the Côte-à-Baron without a care in the world?

Turning away from the window, Honoré looks at his father. “I shouldn’t have read that Nodier tale. That Smarra of his. It haunted me all night.” He lowers his voice and sits in his usual chair, the one facing his father’s. “I hid the copy in Mother’s music box. If Bernard finds it, he’ll be upset with me. He says I shouldn’t be reading these types of books, and I know he’s right. Why am I so tempted by these tales of demons and ravens?” He stands again, paces, and then goes to the window to stare out at the side courtyard. A silvery blue moon hangs in the sky. “It’s because I need to live. To feel. To be thrilled and enticed. I can’t be locked up in this stuffy house for another year reading Leconte Delisle and Louis Fréchette, or worse, LaFontaine!” He presses his palm against the window. “And now Uncle intends on beginning my apprenticeship this fall. I don’t want to be a stoic banker.” He curls his fingers into fists. “I want to be a poet. Or compose my own opera!”

No, he’s getting excited again. If he isn’t careful, Gédéon will call Doctor Beaufort and they’ll force him to take that horrible everlasting pill, or worse, plunge him into an ice cold bath, and then he’ll be in bed for days with an induced fever and stomach cramps.

Honoré kneels by his father’s rolling chair, gazing up at his vacant expression. Then his attention strays to the wall behind the bed. Encased in a massive gold frame, a large portrait of his mother looms over the room. Her black hair is pinned under a sophisticated hat decorated with blue feathers. Her gray eyes, so much like his own, follow him whenever he’s in the room. “I met someone today,” he whispers to his parents, as he’s done ever since he was a child. He doesn’t need to write in a journal. His father is the white page on which he spills his thoughts and dreams, and his mother is the guardian of them. “He came here to ask for a job. I think I made a…friend.” He recalls McGauran’s searching dark eyes. His fiery red hair. His hoarse voice and musical accent. And when he thinks of the shape of McGauran’s muscular chest straining the fabric of his worn jacket, he feels aroused in a way he’s never felt before. The sensation is overwhelmingly pleasant, yet scares him a little.

There was an accord between him and McGauran. A resonance. Most men recoil from Honoré, and those who don’t, watch him salaciously, as though he were a mere object they wish to fondle. It was different with McGauran. Yes, McGauran scrutinized him this afternoon, but in his eyes, there was desire and perhaps even…admiration.

Drool has gathered at the corner of his father’s mouth and Honoré patiently wipes it with his handkerchief. “Can I send for him? He wants me to. I know he does. Sunday. In the afternoon, of course. He must attend church, don’t you think? He’s an Irishman. Do you think he would come? Do you think he fancies me a little?” He glances at the door again. Downstairs, male voices boom and he can smell the cigar smoke gathering in the house. Soon, he’ll be forced to make an appearance and subject himself to their interrogation or indifference.

He rises and checks the doorway. “They think love is a convenient pairing of two estates and bank notes are the world’s poetry.” He looks over at his father. “Don’t you agree?”

Of course, his father stares at the wall, his thick hair shining almost white in the candle light. Above the bed, Honoré’s mother gazes at him with eyes full of secrets he’ll never learn.

Lost in his thoughts, he paces again. The bedroom is small but furnished with everything a man of his father’s status should need. In the right corner, there’s a massive walnut chest filled with finely tailored suits and shirts, and near the window, a Louis XVI secretary is covered with papers, ink, and an empty journal, waiting to be used. The bed, a Parisian baldaquin, is draped with the most lavish purple bed clothes and embroidered silk cushions he could find in the city. All of it has been chosen by him. Every week, the maids dust and clean the room.

Yet, George Latendresse doesn’t need any of those expensive objects. His feet have never even touched the Persian rug. His father, a businessman who was once revered, has been mute and confined to this chair for the last seventeen years. Honoré has never known his embrace. Or if he has, he can’t recall it.

Feeling the grief more poignantly tonight, he goes to the window again. Somewhere to the west, down the hill, is where McGauran O’Dowd lives. Is he lonely, too? Is he thinking of him? No, that would be too much to ask.

Oh, this is torture! To have so much to give and yet have no one to offer it to. Honoré presses his forehead to the cool glass. “I’ll go mad,” he whispers. “And be interned at Saint-Jean de Dieu, with all the other deviants and prodigals.”

The Longue-Pointe Madhouse.

He walks to his chair and falls back into it, resting his head against the plush seat. That’s what happens to men like him. They end up under the care of the good sisters of La Providence.

For a while, he stares at his father, imagining himself in those aged features. Is he doomed to the same fate? When Honoré looks up, he glimpses his own pale face in the mirror above the desk and starts, sitting up straight. His nerves begin to dance under his skin. Sometimes he can’t seem to recognize his face in the mirror. Why?

Alienation from one’s self, Doctor Beaufort calls it. Polymorphic tendencies.

“Ah, there you are.” In his usual brisk manner, Bernard enters the candle lit room and turns that dreadful artificial globe on. He blows the candles out, one by one. “Your uncle requests your company.”

Hoping to hide his mental confusion from Bernard, Honoré watches the smoke twirl up from the extinguished candles and cracks a brittle smile. “The artificial lights keep flickering. It gives me a headache.”

“Yes, I know. The wiring needs some looking into.” Bernard is fluffing George’s pillow behind his head and then pulls the velvet drapes closed. He sighs. “Please stand up, so I can make you presentable.”

Honoré sulks, crossing his arms over his chest. “I am presentable.”

“Now, now.” Bernard stands by his chair with a resolute expression. “A few verses and a song won’t end your life.”

“I haven’t written anything new for so long. I can’t write, Bernard. It’s all gone.”

“Then recite an old poem. The one about the parakeet, or what about that short one you wrote about broken cemetery gates?” Bernard pulls him up. “Your uncle won’t know the difference.”

“And that’s precisely the reason I hate reciting for him and his colleagues. I could read them a passage from La Contesse de Ségur or worse, a page from that awfully boring book Les Anciens Canadiens, and tell them it’s George Sand.”

“Well, you’re a poet and a musician. They’re merchants.” Bernard begins to smooth out the wrinkles and creases in Honoré’s coat. “Poets end up ruined, interned, gravely depressed, or die of venereal diseases.”

Honoré grins. “I’d like a proper venereal disease.”

“Don’t say such things!” Bernard slaps his cheek very gently. “Soon you’ll be married and inheriting—”

“No, I won’t. And you know it.”

Bernard fixes his gaze on him. “Honoré,” he says with a sad expression. “You must…try.”

He can’t hold Bernard’s knowing stare, so he moves away and stands by the window again.

“Men such as yourself have succeeded before. There is nothing stopping you from marrying and fathering children, but your own stubbornness.”

He turns around and makes an effort to contain himself. “I’d rather die than be some countess’ pet husband.”

Bernard shakes his head. “Tsk. Tsk.” He looks down at George in his chair. “Think of your father. Of the life he would like to see his only son lead.” Tenderly, he fiddles with Honoré’s necktie.

Instead, Honoré thinks of the conversation he had yesterday with Maggie, the new housemaid. “We’re hexed. It’s true, isn’t it? That’s why Mother died and Father withers away…and now Uncle is afraid that I’m going mad. That the curse is on me now. That whatever he did, has come down to me and—”

“You’ve been spending time in the kitchen again, haven’t you?” Bernard chuckles dryly, but there’s tension in his face. He pats Honoré’s shoulder and swiftly walks away. “Is it the new girl? That little Irish rose? Did she come with new stories of the Devil and a flying canoe on New Year’s Eve?”

“She says the reason the housemaids don’t stay but a few months, is because they’re terrified of the Devil returning. Of that black dog, too.”

Now he’s said it. He watches for Bernard’s reaction.

Bernard pauses a little. “You shouldn’t be befriending the help. It isn’t proper. I should have that girl sent home. Bad enough you spend your days with Fredeline in the kitchen.”

“Don’t you dare. Maggie has no home. She’d be forced into a nunnery.” He crosses his arms over his chest again. “I have no friends! Whose company am I to keep?”


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