Geraniums

DEAN ELTHAM March 15 1929

Geraniums

DEAN ELTHAM March 15 1929

Geraniums

This story was one of six awarded honorable mention in MacLean's Short Story Contest

DEAN ELTHAM

The tragic comedy of a misbegotten feud

ANTHONY GREEN, lockmaster of Number Two on the Lachine Canal, watched with something akin to malice in his usually good-natured eyes, as the John L. Savage nosed its vast wooden hulk into the western lock. Vast, indeed, for a lake freighter in those days when the New Victoria Bridge was but two years old, and side-burns were the essential badge of respectability.

Anthony hid his admiration of the new vessel behind a wide placid face that was lined and interlined with tenuous hair-like purple veins. Taking his pipe from his mouth, he peered belligerently up into the wheel-house of the ship. Yes—John Savage himself at the wheel; though so preoccupied with the engine bells that he was oblivious to the lockmaster. Anthony snorted and waddled off indignantly to the stern of the vessel. Hah ! Just as he thought. The upstream gate would only just take her. And even at that her stern projected over the gate which Anthony’s men were closing in on her. His attention was suddenly averted by the blistering curses that emanated from the cupped hands of the rugged figure leaning over the ship’s bridge.

Making his way forward, Anthony could not help noting the alacrity with which John Savage’s deckhands snubbed her to the “niggerheads.” John Savage: the same this year as last, now and ever shall be, thought Anthony; feared for his blasphemous temper by every deckhand from Fort William to Victoria Basin; owner of a few grain boats that had an uncanny habit of paying their way and enabling John to add to them occasionally. The John L. Savage was his latest and by far the largest.

Anthony snorted again. Here, at least, was one individual whom John could not intimidate. And the vindictive light in the lockmaster’s eyes increased as he thought of the letter he had received a month ago from the Department of Canals, reprimanding him for the complaint of a lake captain—John Savage, by gum— who had been obliged to wait fifteen minutes till Anthony’s men returned from an errand which had led them to a benevolent friend whence they returned with two wheelbarrows full of geraniums with which to embellish the lockhouse garden.

As Anthony came abreast of the bridge, he took his pipe out of his mouth, spread his stumpy fat legs to brace himself for the blast he was about to deliver at John, and dug his chubby fists into his paunch like a scandalized charwoman. But John was still busy casting insulting aspersions on the ancestry of his deckhands. So Anthony spat contemptuously at the new paint of the vessel and waited impatiently, meanwhile sweeping John up and down with scornful glances. Unfortunately, he could not see the blazing anger in the keen blue eyes under the visor of John’s cap.

Suddenly the skipper straightened up, turned a scorching gaze on the lockmaster and pointed a quivering finger at him.

“I seen ye. I seen ye. Spit on my new ship, would ye, ye fat old trollop? Fire an’ water! Go back to yer geraniums, Auntie—” scathingly.

Yes, John Savage had laid that complaint, by gum, decided Anthony with conviction, though his jaw sagged before the withering invectives that followed. Dang

the man! Every time John camj through, he had something to badger the lazy good-natured lockmaster with—had been doing it for years till it came to be as much a part of the cruise through the canal as the buoys up above the rapids. And he would have missed taunting Anthony just as much as a buoy that had broken loose from its moorings. It was John, of course, who had labeled him “Auntie.” And now every lake captain east the jibe at the matronly custodian of Number Two.

Anthony recovered his speech at last and shook his pipe at John, retorting in his ludicrous high-pitched soprano: “Now, looky ’ere. I know who laid that complaint agin me . . . Shet up, will ye?” John had not finished by any means—had merely paused for breath.

“I’ll have ye know that this vessel’s the biggest freighter on the lakes and not to be belittled by any lazy lubber like yew.”

“Yes?” Anthony was exasperated and a bit befuddled so that he was unable to keep to his subject. “Ye’ll build ’em so big some day that ye’ll not get them through the lock. ’Er buttocks is almost ’ung up on the upper gate now,” he shrilled, pointing upstream with his pipe.

“I ain’t buildin’ ’em any bigger, ye old fool, till they makes the locks ter fit. In fact, I ain’t buildin’ any more just now. For they’s a few about the lakes as ain’t payin’ their way. I’m goin’ to buy instead o’ build from now on—an’ buy cheap, too. See, Auntie.”

“Huh! Now looky ’ere, I aint agoin’ to be put off. About that complaint . . . d’ye ’ear? ...”

But John heard a hail from the bow instead and turned away to the wheel-house, smiling to himself at having satiated his obsession—that of baiting Anthony. The gates were clear, the hawsers loosened and the deckhands were clambering over the bulwarks. John stretched a hand to a lever and a bell tinkled afar off in the bowels of the ship. Slowly she moved out of the lock, leaving Anthony’s grudge unrequited.

Clear of the lock, John caught sight of his own reflection in the wheel-house window. The rugged, clean shaven features and audacious eyes pleased him—a personable rogue, to be sure. And there was a woman in Montreal much less pudgy than Auntie—oh, much less pudgy.

It took far longer to unload the small freighter of those days than it does to empty the largest steel-clad grain carrier that sails the lakes to-day. And by the time the John L. had secured a return cargo, several days had elapsed.

Coming into Number Two again, John looked for Anthony Green to deride as usual. But the lockmaster was nowhere to be seen. A mean-looking rat of a man officiated in his stead.

“Where’s Auntie?” asked John. “Suspended.”

“What for?”

“Dunno, ’cept someone laid a complaint agin him. Second time. Don’t get a thirjl in

the service.”

“Gone fer good?” John’s tone was almost querulous.

“Dunno. Ain’t completely fired yet. Jus’ suspended,” answered the newcomer impatiently, obviously unwilling to discuss the matter any further.

“Fire an’ water!” stormed John.

They talk about that trip of the John L. to the head of the lakes yet. No one before or since has ever beheld its skipper in such a sustained tantrum. His deckhands turned pale under leathery countenances before the torrent of abuse that belched from his churlish lips. And it never ceased all the way to Fort William and back again. In fact, when John beheld the rat-faced man still in charge at Number Two, it increased if anything. Twice running he had been done out of baiting Anthony !

Now John knew “a feller who knew a feller” in the Department of Canals; and the letter that he wrote was as choice a specimen of blasphemous coercion as anyone would care to see. Of course, he was in the way of becoming an influential owner some day. And the shocking phrasing must have been ignored in the Department . , .

{"\NE evening John wandered aimlessly down his gang plank at Montreal, and by the fitful yellow gleam of lamps picked his way more or less carefully among bales, hawsers and stanchions that encumbered the space between the freight sheds and the quay’s edge. Shambling over the cobbles on Commissioner Street, he made for the sociable atmosphere of the Nautilus.

Now the keeper of that tavern must have been a subtle humorist, else he had never hung up the sign “ Ne blasphémez pas” and under it in terser English “Don’t curse.” No man who plays host for many years to seamen could have been otherwise and conceived the sign in the first place. John showed his wholesome appreciation of the joke by greeting Anthony Green across the smoke-fogged taproom with bristling oaths.

“So ye been stealin’ the government’s lumber, have ye, ye big tub o’ lard? Nice business for a respectable woman, ain’t it, Auntie?”

“Ye—ye—” shrilled Anthony, beside himself.

“Or was takin’ in washin’ and neglectin’ the government’s business?”

“Ye know right well what it was ...”

“Me? How should I know?” scornfully. “Nice thing to be draggin’ the name of an innocent lake captain into your nefar’ous schemes! Nex’ thing I know, ye’ll be blackmailin’ me—suin’ me for breach of promise or the like. For the life o’ me I could never understand where they got such a baggage for Number Two.”

“They washed out the complaints, they did!” screamed Anthony, goaded to such extremes to vindicate himself that he almost forgot to confront John with the charge of tale-bearing. “Got a letter this mornin’ reinstatin’ me.” John betrayed nothing of his elation or of the part his letter had played. “And all your bellyachin’ to the Department didn’t do no good after all.”

“My bellyachin’ ! Aun-tie ! !” For a moment Anthony was given to wondering whether he had done his tormentor an injustice. But when John dramatically covered his face with his hands and wailed in mock anguish, “To think—that after all these years you would suspect me. Oh, this is too much!”

Anthony’s purplish face turned a sickly mauve before the raucous laughter. With his paunch undulating at each jerky step, he attempted an impression of courtly disdain as he deserted the tavern. But what chance has a fat man of being taken seriously?

As he made his way over to Notre Dame Street to board a horse-drawn tram-car, he was pitifully uncertain as to whether his exit had been ridiculous or dignified. Though of one thing he was more certain than ever. John Savage, by gum. Him it was who had squealed. And as the quaint little horse car rumbled along, the indignities that he had suffered at the hands of the iniquitous John so occupied his mind that he absently knocked the red hot dottle from his pipe to the strawstrewn floor, and drew for his carelessness a sharp reproof from the driver. Anthony sighed. A cruel and unsympathetic world.

And so, for years, Anthony nursed his grudge and endured the sarcasm and taunts of the skipper of the John L. What else could a mere lockmaster do to tie the score with a man who became annually more prosperous and influential? .First thing Anthony knew, John Savage would be retiring to an office to direct the affairs of his rapidly increasing fleet. Then, reflected Anthony sorrowfully, there’d be nothing but morose brooding left for himself instead of the revenge he forlornly hoped for.

But Anthony reckoned without the disposition of Fate and the short-sightedness of John Savage. The sad-faced disillusioned men who sold their wooden bottoms to John woke up one morning to the tune of gossip from Ottawa that the canals down the lakes were to be deepened by four feet; and the locks doubled in length. It was not many months before John came to recognize a good many of those men in the host of dredging crews that cluttered up the canals. But apart from cursing them frantically for the delays they occasioned, he was anything but perturbed at the new developments. Bigger ships? You’re . . right! And he’d build ’em when the time came. But that was a long way off yet, according to John.

A month or two after the deepening of the canals was completed, the John L. sailed into the western lock at Number Two—sailed in, mark you—and with oceans of room to spare. For once, John forebore to seek out the obese Anthony. No. By the time he had castigated his deckhands into feverish activity, he sauntered to starboard to take a look at the monstrous steel-clad freighter that could only just squeeze into the enlarged eastern lock. A scowl settled on his face. Curious, he sought her name—Gotaland. When she steamed out, he re-read the name on her stern and under it, “Stockholm.”

Anthony had been standing back, directly amidships of the John L., secretly gloating at the sorry comparison that it made with the foreign vessel. He came over to the bridge.

“And what do ye think o’ that?” he piped, jerking his thumb toward the Gotaland. John, who was thinking furiously, momentarily ignored the voice behind him. At last he crossed the bridge to where Anthony stood.

“What’s she doin’ up here?” he asked soberly.

“What d’ ye think—fishing for sardines?” answered Anthony, thinking he had John on the raw at last.

“Now look here, y’ fat porpoise, I’ll have yuh reported to the Department unless y’re more civil to a skipper.”

“No offense—no offense,” mumbled Anthony. John was still the mightiest power in lake shipping and Anthony wouldn’t risk running foul of the Department again. “She’s been trampin’ the Baltic an’ thereabouts,” he vouchsafed. “Brought over a cargo o’ sardines and matches. An’ now she’s goin’ up fer pulpwood.”

“H’m,” remarked John grimly. “I suppose we’ll have a lot o’ lousy Swedes stealin’ our bread an’ butter right under our nose now. A fine idea—deepening the canals! Ach! A fine idea for a lot o’ blasted foreigners. Fire an’ water!”

WHEN John learned in the taverns in Montreal that a big corporation had ordered two steel bottoms laid down, he began to think more furiously than ever. Sell his wooden ships? Where? Nobody with any brains would buy them, what with the writing on the wall. And there weren’t any brainless skippers left. Ironically enough, they had sold their ships to John! Maybe he could sell them to the coal companies that shipped across Lake Ontario. Even take a loss on them, and start anew with one or two of these mammoth lake boats that were mooted. But the coal companies wanted to sell theirs, too. The market was glutted with obsolete craft.

One by one the new ships came up the lakes. Great steel hulks that made John’s puny fleet look like that of the Lilliputians. It took four of his vessels to carry the same tonnage as one of the new; and gradually the freight brokers came to shake their heads and smile commiseratingly, when, for the first time in twenty years, John had to beg for a cargo.

With the post-war depression, he was forced to beach three of his oldest craft, leaving them to rot in the mouths of muddy creeks. Tied up to a dock, they ran up wharfage accounts like wantons, till grim lines crept into John’s face and settled there. And the windows of the wheel-house of the John L. mocked him constantly with a drawn visage topped by scraggy whitening hair.

Then he learned of a huge construction company that was about to operate sand and gravel concessions in the Lake of Two Mountains. They gave him a temporary contract, which he accepted with bad grace for two reasons. They told him that his contract would last only as long as it took the shipyards to deliver a fleet of steel scows. - Jumping Christopher ! Everybody bitten with the same bug? The second and crowning blow came when he nursed the John L. up to a dredge that screamed and hissed, and gobbled great scoops of sand and gravel out of the depths only to spew the slimy mass all over his decks. He almost tore his hair out by the roots.

Anthony saw him frequently now. For it isn’t a long cruise from the Lake of Two Mountains to Montreal. Anthony, grown more ponderous than ever, was due to be pensioned off soon and was inclined to be garrulous about it. He was likewise inclined to be a little more selfassertive toward John, especially since a morose taciturnity had settled on the latter during the last few years.

But on the last voyage of the John L. from the Lake of Two Mountains, John turned a stream of lurid rhetoric on Anthony that would have caused a buccaneer to stop his ears for shame. His contract was ended, his account with the construction company overdrawn, all his vessels scrapped except the flagship, and it due to be warped into a quay for the last time.

When Anthony heard its whistle, he was contemplating the scene in the late afternoon sun, remembering days when green fields flowed back from the canal, which to-day was the bottom of a canyon, whose walls were towering mills blackened by the pall of smoke from spindling red stacks. Here and there a blast furnace gushed green and yellow flame against its dusty cowl, disseminating sulphurous fumes which wove in among the black smoke like diaphanous yellow scarves. Another whistle—a deep throaty roartold him that an upbound freighter was also demanding his attention. He saw that she was coming up light, this great black steel amazon. Her bow was high and her red belly thrust lewdly upward as though greedily seeking the last rays of the sun. High above her in the clean blue sky hummed a plane, flashing in the sun as though proudly aware of its rare freedom.

Anthony turned to look at the John L. and shook his head. Forlorn indeed she seemed. Shorn of all her former pride. None of the Téméraire about her. And Anthony could not help frowning as he saw the sullen attitude of the crew. He blinked, unbelieving, when he saw one of them actually turn and scowl at John’s vituperative commands. Poor old John. Despite his tenacious efforts to drive his men in the classic tradition, the raised eyebrows and drooping mouth betrayed the despair which had seized him. Better let bygones be bygones, thought Anthony. Go along and have a shot at consoling him.

“Got my papers this mornin’, John,” he began in his friendliest manner. “Pensioned off, I am. Kin drop out anytime I like now. But I got to have somethin’ to

do . . ”

“Why don’t ye join a circus then, Auntie?” innocently.

“What for?”

“Get ye a job in the side show as the fat lady.” John guffawed loudly.

“All right!” piped Anthony, scandalized. “I was only tryin’ t’ be decent to ye in yer advers’ty. Out o’ the goodness o’ me heart. I’m sorry to have to say it,” he concluded with exaggerated hauteur, “but it’s just what I’d expect from a feller as would betray me to the Department.” Anthony turned his back and walked away from the fuming skipper.

“Well, y’ dirty old baggage, y’ lyin’ old witch,” stormed John. “Go get ye a piece o’ land and tiddle about with geraniums fer the rest o’ yer life. And mind some wicked sea captain don’t come along an’ marry ye an’ drink all yer pension. Me betray yeh? Why, y’ . . . !” And until the John L. moved out of the lock, Anthony’s ears tingled with the epithets which followed him about . . .

“Cap’n Savage is right, Mr. Green,” remarked the man who was due to take over Number Two from Anthony. “He didn’t have nothing to do with them complaints. Remember Rat Nelson as was fired from the service for sellin’ the timbers we took out of the old lock?” Anthony nodded. “Well, he it was who squealed on you. He was after your johI knew it. But I was only a kid then and scared of him. Clean forgot about it till you and the cap’n was arguing about it just now.”

Anthony was staring absently at the stern of the John L. as she moved out. Had he been nursing an unjust grudge against old John all these years? Well, the old fool needn’t have been so testy about it. Why hadn’t he told him years ago?

“Are ye sure about that?” he asked.

“Absolutely. What’s more, I heard him cursing the cap’n, behind his back, of course, about some letter the old man had written to Ottawa to get your job back again for you.”

“Eh?” asked Anthony, dumbfounded.

“Yes. Seems he was the means of getting them complaints washed out for you.”

Anthony swore an appreciative oath and cast a sorrowful glance after the John L.

Still brooding on John, he went down to the docks toward dark. These days he traveled in a clanging electric car and had almost forgotten the old straw-strewn horse cars. The Nautilus had’changed but little, however, except that now it was crowded with men from all ends of the earth instead of mostly English and French-Canadians as in the old days. Cockneys and Swedes, Italians and Cubans filled the long tables, elbow to elbow. Seven days between decks and seven days in port taverns; and they looked it.

Anthony grunted as he sank his bulk gratefully into a corner seat, and smoked away stolidly, watching the swinging doors for John. He was momentarily unaware of several pairs of scowling eyes, turned furtively in his direction from a group of murderous-looking deckhands in an opposite corner. When at last he ga^ed absently at them, they seemed to cringe and whisper among themselves, till, one by one, they gulped down their beer and slunk out.

Anthony blinked. He had recognized some of them as coming from the crew of the John L. It took quite a few minutes for a suspicion to generate in his brain. But suddenly he stood up, finished his beer, and waddled out across the cobbles to the stone wall that enclosed the freight sheds and gaunt elevators. Cold blue arc lights helped him to pick his way over the tracks. At that he had to move uncomfortably fast to escape being run down by an electric train. It had the effect, however, of stimulating his imagination. No use looking for him near the elevators. Now where were the slips that the construction company used for its sand dumps? Up river to be sure. Anthony sighed at the thought of the walk and plodded on doggedly. It was pitch black beyond the passenger docks and he went warily. But in spite of all his care he tripped and fell over a body prone in his path. Sitting up and puffing disgustedly, Anthony was startled to hear a moan that was half a snort, nearby. He reached out his hand and encountered a face. His hand came away damp. Striking a match, he discovered John, his eyelids flickering and an ugly cut over his temple. The skipper struggled, raised himself on his elbow; and Anthony slipped an enormous arm under his shoulders, lifting John into a sitting posture. John swore loudly and mournfully.

“Them deckhands, Auntie, I didn’t have enough to pay ’em off.” He felt his pockets. “They swiped me watch even. Hell. An’ all I got left is a boat what nobody’d buy even fer firewood.” He struggled again, and with prodigious effort Anthony got him to his feet.

“John, I’m sorry fer blamin’ ye.” There was a shrill quaver in Anthony’s voice. “I just learned about the letter ye wrote fer me.”

John ignored the inference by asking, “How did ye know I was beat up?”

“I didn’t. But I seen them deckhands o’ yourn in the Nautilus. An’ when they seen me, they skulks off. I suspect somethin’ was up. So I came along lookin’ fer ye.”

“Thanks, old lady,” said John. Anthony winced at the term; but he was willing to forego an argument in view of the honest appreciation in John’s tone.

“Better get back to yer ship, John, an’ take it easy. I’ll help ye.”

“Allright. Damme! But I can’t give ye a drink even. Me cabin’s bare.”

“I’ll bring ye some from the Nautilus then.”

“H’m. Think I cud walk over meself in a few moments. Feel better now. Come on.” It was a command and Anthony found that there was no use in expostulating with the old firebrand.

Once inside the hazy atmosphere, John was himself again. And his eye roved dangerously about, as though seeking his assailants.

Anthony, sitting across from him, viewed this warlike show with sorry skepticism, well aware that John was no match for that hard-bitten crew. But the lockmaster’s attention was distracted. For over in a corner, a haggard-looking cockney oiler with a filthy Turkish towel swathed about his throat for a scarf, was wailing out a song. Drunk with beer and sentiment, crocodile tears streaked his grimy cheeks as he strove to drown out a crony who was sprawled across the table babbling “Annie Laurie.” The cockney drew a look of injured pride from his mate as he victoriously subdued him with “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Anthony turned to look at John’s head. No golden hairs there. In fact, the old boy’s days were done. His fingers trembled as they reached for the glass: and despite his belligerent air, Anthony saw that the raised eyebrows, the drooping mouth and thin white hair gave him the lie.

“John, what’re ye goin’t’ do, now that yer contract’s finished?”

John’s shoulders sagged slowly and he stared with melancholy eyes at the floor.

“Don’t know,” he said, mechanically.

Timidly, Anthony broached a thought that had been brewing ever since he had seen the John L. steam out of the lock at sunset.

“I got a bit o’ land ten mile down stream, John. A sizable creek runnin’ into the river. We cud—er,” he was hesitant about going on, but John prodded him. “Well, we cud have a tug tow her—” he hated to name the John L. and his tone was almost reverent—“up into the creek, an’ live on her fer the rest of our days. I’ll dig a bit o’ garden fer taters an’ so on,” he added with a weak smile.

They argued about it till the doors of the Nautilus were bolted behind them, argued all the way to the John L. and up to the bridge, even under the smoky swinging oil lamp in John’s cabin. Anthony finally gained the ascendancy, chiefly because the impoverished skipper’s prospects were so bleak that it was either that or starve.

“I owe it to ye, John. But fer yer letter I’d never had this pension. And I got more’n enough fer towage.”

“More” was a scanty margin. But it tided them over till the next instalment of the pension.

The John L. was beached in the creek and Anthony’s truck garden well started when he discovered a curé in a village, hard by, who was anxious to give him a few geranium slips. And John, coming back to the ship one day after a fit of restless roaming, found his ship deserted. Anthony gone to the village in all probability. John climbed to the bridge and stopped, staring horribly at the sight of the windows of his cabin. There, nailed just under the ledges, were some window boxes, and In them . . .

. A’mighty! Geraniums!” snarled John with madness in his eyes. He kicked savagely at one of the window boxes and scattered its earth and stones over his decks. “Sand and gravel!” he muttered weirdly. For some moments he stared aft, unseeing. Better to take her out to sea and sink her, he thought. “Fire and water!” No crew, no money to give her a decent grave and save her from the taunts of a jibing world. Next thing he knew, Auntie would be tying pink bows on the handles of the foc’sle doors, primping her like a simpering old strumpet. “Fire and water ! . . . fire!” He peered about artfully. Seeing no sign of Anthony he went below. And when he emerged, a quarter of an hour later a wisp of smoke followed him out of the companionway.

Up in the village the curé was showing Anthony a new scarlet geranium, when he clutched the latter’s arm excitedly.

“Look!” he cried, pointing to the river.

A billowing mass of oily black smoke swirled skyward on the crest of a thousand vicious red tongues.

Anthony did not wait to say adieu. Puffing and grunting, he made for the JohnL. as fast as his enormous legs would carry him. But there was no hope of saving it. It was a seething furnace. John? Anthony’s paunch quaked with fear. And his eyes filled with anguish till he caught sight of a bare-headed figure half a mile off, shoulders hunched desolately, striding in the general direction of Montreal.

Two tears rolled down Anthony’s fat cheeks as he retreated before the terrific heat and saw, through the wavering smoke, a steel freighter inexorably plowing its way up the river.