Fiction

The Courting of Jenny

The wild Brckner boys figured that a woman's place was at her man's beck and call. Man was a Breckner too, but that afternoon at Hidden Lake taught him that a fist isn't the strongest thing in the world

L. JOHANNE STEMO April 15 1952
Fiction

The Courting of Jenny

The wild Brckner boys figured that a woman's place was at her man's beck and call. Man was a Breckner too, but that afternoon at Hidden Lake taught him that a fist isn't the strongest thing in the world

L. JOHANNE STEMO April 15 1952

The Courting of Jenny

The wild Brckner boys figured that a woman's place was at her man's beck and call. Man was a Breckner too, but that afternoon at Hidden Lake taught him that a fist isn't the strongest thing in the world

L. JOHANNE STEMO

THE MIDSUMMER’S SUN set in a billow of flame in the Strait of Georgia. The down of shedding fireweed floated aimlessly on the warm breeze. To Matthew Breckner, making his way home from Hidden Lake, the trail held the quality of all island trails in summer —a dry woodsy aroma spicing the sea breeze, a wink of birds’ wings, the call of a distant hooter; while above, the blue dome of the sky ripened into a soft haze.

He was fully clothed again. His faded cotton shirt covered broad shoulders. The stiff canvaslike denims sat easily on him though his knees still held a strange weakness. He was nineteen, balancing on that intangible line from boy to man, the youngest of the Breckner crew.

There were five Breckner boys: Andy, Creit, Bowman, Digby and

Matthew. And there was the Old Man. The Breckners lived by a law unto themselves. The Old Man had homesteaded the island in the old days and, one by one, as the boys came, he laid claim to land for each of them; leasing, squatting, warring on all intruders till there were more than six hundred acres under his control.

Matt remembered when they had farmed, grazed sheep, raised a few head of stock. Now all that was changed. The timber off the land had set them free. The Old Man was close to seventy but he still held the deal in all family transactions. Cagily he sold the poorest timber first. The boys took out poles and ties. Now the timber that remained was a stand of pure gold —towering firs, many reaching twelve feet across their butts.

The boys hunted, fished and swam and, when the manana atmosphere of the islands palled, the receipts from the timber took care of chartered planes to Vancouver, of careening U-drives and liquor. But so far the Breckner reputation had not touched Matt. Robbery, arson, even murder had at one time or another been linked with the names of the others and rumor had it that the Old Man’s coming to the island was the result of a break with the law.

But Matt was different. He even looked different. Where the others were sandy-haired and rawboned he was handsomely dark, with an inner calm that gave an appearance of gentleness. He moved with a catlike grace, easily and without effort.

Often in the evenings he could be seen splitting wood, bringing in kindling and water—chores that were considered woman work in the Breckner tribe and beneath a man. And in the dull lustreless eyes of Ma Breckner would come a momentary glint of something akin to hope as she watched her last-born.

Matt topped the rise. To his left the open strait spread below him to dissolve in the distant smoke and mist that shrouded Vancouver and the mainland; through the trees on his right the last rays of the sun gilded the island-dotted channel.

From here the path dipped sharply downward and soon the squat log cabin that he called home came into view. He Continued on page, 40

The Courting of Jenny

Continued from page 18

slowed his steps, not wanting to meet with the others yet; afraid that the turbulence inside himself would communicate itself to them. He spied a log, straddled it and let his mind go back to Jenny and the afternoon.

HE HAD gone down to the far bay to see if the island l ug had picked up the two poles he had salvaged a couple of evenings earlier and had come back by the old school trail. A hundred yards off the road he had come upon Jenny filling a pail with blackberries. “How’s the picking?” he said.

“Oh— ” She was startled. “All right, 1 guess.”

“You come up here often?” He was making conversation, not analyzing the reason but wanting to hear her talk, wanting to see the berry-stained lips part in a smile.

“When the blackberries are on.” She seemed pleased and surprised that he had stopped to talk.

“Seems forever since we used to come this way to school, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said, letting her eyes go back. “Two years.”

“Three for me,” he grinned. “Gosh, them were the days. Ever go up to the lake any more?”

She shook her head. He had a sudden urge. “Let’s go up there now. I’ll help fill your pail and you can pick it up on your way back.”

The sun was high as they turned off the school trail to the overgrown path that skirted Hidden Lake. Once out of the shade of undergrowth the heat rose in waves from the dried marsh grass; sandpipers flitted across the sand dunes; ducks skimmed across the water to settle and feed near the far shore. The sharp blue of dragonflies whirred endlessly.

“Do you hunt up here?” she asked. “Nah—there’s lots of other places to hunt. Wouldn’t seem right coming here to kill things.”

“No,” she agreed, looking at him wonderingly. The escapades of the Breek ner tribe were legend on the islands but any scraps of conversation she had overheard involving Matt had given him grudging approval. Her own approval Jay open in her face and in the quickening of her pulse beat. “A tiger don’t change his spots nor a leopard his stripes,” her Gramps had countered but then he was full of quotes and figures of speech that didn’t always apply.

“Look,” she said. “Lookwaterpoppies!”

“Sure, acres of them. Want me to get you some?” He dragged off" his shoes, turned up his denims and waded knee deep in the water. “Gosh, it’s warm.”

“Remember when we used to go swimming here?” She kicked off her sandals and paddled in.

“They should have called it Forbidden Lake,” he said and laughed out loud. “Gosh, they couldn’t have kept us out with a shotgun them days. Wonder if the kids still come up here?” “I’ll bet they do,” she said.

“Wonder if the first ones here still get the hole around the bend?”

“And cheat!” She laughed up at him with the shared memory. “When the girls got here first there was always some boy poking his nose through the bushes.”

He joined in her laughter. “And what a hornets’ nest that started.” They found a partially submerged log running down from the bank and chose a place to sit between its forked branches while their feet still paddled the water. Jenny broke the shimmering

silence that fell between them. “It’s like being alone in the world up here.” “When they tell you about Heaven guess there couldn’t be a place more beautiful,” he said. “Only this is better. There’s a place to swim.” Slowly she lifted her eyes to his and the question that was in them was reflected in his own. “We could,” he said. “Sure we could. There wouldn’t be anything wrong.”

He felt the sudden glow that suff used them both and with one accord they rose. “I’ll have the far hole,” she said and he barely caught the words before she scampered from view around the bend.

FOR A moment he stood hesitant, his eyes skimming the green duckweed-covered shallows and going on to the crystal clarity of the depths and then he shed the cotton shirt and heavy denims and, stepping down the length of log, clambered out upon a mossgrown deadhead and dove headlong into the pool. Seconds later he heard a splash around the bend.

He swam lazily, effortlessly, feeling the soft flow of the water against his body, swimming frog fashion, crawling, treading, flipping over on his back in a partially submerged arc, arms crossed, staring up at the blue sky, listening . . .

“Matt—-” she called.

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s warm over here.”

He turned over and swam again, from the depths of the first pool to the beginning of the bend, splashing and making a great noise. He caught the shimmer of her body through the water. She turned over on her back and her long hair floated in a darkmass on the water. Sunlight caught her face as she laughed over at him.

He slid through the shallows that joined the two pools. They paddled vigorously, splashing, laughing, letting the feel of the slapping water carry the moment; ducking, racing, and, then breathless, they rested. Her eyes, soft as brown velvet, met his in exciting conspiracy yet so completely innocent that the moment hung suspended like a bubble and neither of them spoke for fear of bursting it.

Finally their glances broke and the water swirled with their bodies. They swam tirelessly, turning, feinting, gliding, or just treading water and then floating for long moments on end. He caught up the dried broken fork of a tree from the bank and they used it to rest their arms. Then they swam again, ducking, splashing, the sheen of their young bodies glistening through the water; dragonflies whirring over the far green; birds calling; ducks clustering at the far shore, scattering and clustering again as the waters broke in unaccustomed ripples and the quiet of the afternoon echoed and re-echoed with their voices.

IT WAS much later when Matt dove from an outcropping on the far bank and, looking across the water, saw her still clinging to the forked limb. With sudden concern he swam toward her. “Anything wrong?”

She was slowly treading water. Her hair hung in long wet strands. Her face looked wan and her eyes dropped from his. “I’m tired.”

“Tired?” The word was a stranger to him and then he grasped her meaning. “Tired—oh sure. I’ll go.” Then, looking up into the sky, he was stunned to find the sun’s rays coming low on the horizon. “Gee, I didn’t mean . .

Crimson suffused their faces and spread. The gossamer web that had clothed the afternoon exploded in their faces and their nakedness was like a pointing finger.

"PkJTATT scrambled through the shal1?1 lows, swam to the first pool, reached the far bank and hurried up. He drew the stiff denims over his stillwet legs and slipped his arms through the sleeves of the old faded shirt. His boots felt hard and uncomfortable on his damp feet.

He went farther up the bank and stood in the dry marsh grass, not wanting to wait but knowing he must, wanting only to hold the past few hours alive in his mind, feeling the soft flow of water around him, seeing the sheen of their bodies, wanting to hold on to all of it because somehow he knew it could never be like this again.

Jenny came up the narrow path and it amazed him that she was still beautiful. He must have been blind all these years. But she was ill at ease now, wanting only to get away.

“Gramps will be looking for me,” she said. “I’d better go.” She darted ahead of him and soon all he could see was the polka-dotted scarf she had knotted around her head and then she disappeared in a fork of the road.

Matt followed and, when he came to the fork, turned the other way

toward home. He’d had nothing but a few berries since breakfast but when he saw the curling smoke from the cabin he stopped in his tracks. He tucked his shirt in under his belt and ran fingers through his hair. It was as though he anticipated a questioning and yet he couldn’t remember that they had ever questioned him.

In his mind’s eye he saw Jenny disappearing down the path. Would she have to explain her absence to her grandfather? For the first time he wondered about the strangeness of her life with the hermitlike Gramps who was a fanatic in a sense—living apart from the world and its sins and rearing the granddaughter fate had left him in an atmosphere of Biblical quotes and strict discipline. Matt frowned. It could not be much fun for a young girl.

He might have gone on remembering —remembering the flush that had crept up and over her face, the soft eyes, the excitement that had been between them, as crystal clear and shining as the water. But now two mongrel dogs came yapping and racing up the path. He picked up a small stick. “Here, fetch.” He tossed the stick far into the underbrush. The dogs leaped forward.

YOU THINK I got nothing to do but serve meals here all hours?” said Ida, Creit’s wife, as Matt stepped into the house. “I got a notion to just sit and twiddle my thumbs an’ see how it feels to be a lady.”

Creit was cleaning his gun on the front stoop. He ducked his head through the open door. “Long as we’re living here you’re cooking the grub. Ma washes up. You cook.” He paused then added. “Take more’n twiddling your thumbs to make you a lady.” He grinned over at Matt.

Matt sat down to the table and

began buttering a slab of bread while waiting for Ida to bring in his dinner. Three of the boys were married and of the three wives Matt had always liked Ida best.

Bowman’s and Digby’s women were cringing shapeless creatures with many children. There were times when Matt had felt a stirring of pity for them but there had been contempt too, for their spineless acceptance of everything. In some ways they reminded him of his mother and this filled him with unaccountable anger. There were times when they had the same lustreless eyes with that vague almost vacant expression as though they could close out their surroundings at will and nothing would touch them.

In comparison, Ida was a prancing war horse full of life and vigor. Coarse laughter and violent abuse fell with equal ease from her lips. When Creit returned alone from one of his bouts in town she would make a great show of favoring Matt and asking, “Eggs boiled just right?” and “You’d never let a girl sit home if you was her man.”

Creit would wink at Matt and Matt would wink right back and the abuse would fall like a cloudburst. Then the Old Man would rouse from the couch. Like an evil patriarch of bygone days his rheumy eyes would drip fire. His scrawny beard would part and the Breckner tribal laws would be bellowed forth with new ones added as necessary.

Once in a forgotten period of his life the Old Man had attended a camp meeting and, though no noticeable change for the better had come of it, he had nevertheless garnered suitable quotations that, if not entirely accurate, served his purpose. He spouted a few and glared self-righteously.

“Who God hath joined together let them stay put.” He cleared his throat and dared anyone to deny the gems that fell from his lips. “ ‘ . . . the man shall rule over the woman.’ ”

“There’s other commandments,” said Ida. “What about the others?” She plunked the dish she was carrying upon the table.

“Fah,” said the Old Man. “I don’t know how Creit came to pick you up but you’re here an’ you’ll stay put. I’m still in control an’ you don’t want to forget it.” He settled back on the couch, rolled over and seemingly went to sleep.

Matt’s and Creit’s glances met then fell. Andy, the oldest and unmarried, continued reading in his corner. Ma let her knitting drop, eased up from her chair and walked noiselessly out of the room. Ida clattered back to the kitchen and they could hear pots and pans being shoved about, the crash of crockery and the tinkle of glass.

Matt had always had a sort of admiration for the Old Man, a kind of respect as it were for the lion in his den. It came to him now that the others didn’t; they hated him. It was the green gold in the hills that tied them to the Old Man’s purse strings; that and the freedom that would come with his passing.

I’m a Breckner, thought Matt but something was lacking and it troubled him. Some day when the need came upon him he would fan the flame of restlessness and desire and go hellbent for excitement like the others. Some day he would find a girl like Ida and bring her home for the Old Man’s inspection. Someday — there was lots of time.

But now he was no longer sure. Conviction replaced the doubt that stirred within him. He was different. He cared not so much for the Old Man’s money and Ida was an insult when he thought of Jenny.

He had never courted a girl. He thought about it now. Tomorrow he

would call and make himself known to Gramps. Momentarily he worried about the Breckner reputation, then shrugged. He would go out in the morning and start felling timbers for a log cabin. No one could mistake his intentions then. He’d worry Creit and Andy into helping and by the end of the month there ought to be a fair house up.

He shoved back from the table and tried to see his surroundings as if he wem looking at them for the first time. The grimy oilcloth-covered table, bare in spots, centred the big room. Beneath

his feet the floor was worn and slivered. Unnoticed, Ma was back in the rocker, staring into space. Andy hadn’t moved. The Old Man breathed with a disconcerting whistle. Ida went tapping about the rooms, restless, challenging, petulant. It was no place to bring Jenny.

“Say, where’d you spend the day, boy? Looks like you got a powerful lot of sunning,” Creit shot the charged words at him.

Matt felt his ears burning and cursed inwardly at his lack of control.

“Well, son-of-a-seacook, if 1 don’t

believe the white-haired boy’s got himself a female. Ida, come here.” Creit gurgled with relish. “What woman you s’pose our boy could have found all by himself this fine and sunny afternoon?”

“Not Matthew!” said Ida. “Not really. Come on, Matt—give. We’re going to find out anyway.”

“Can’t a fellow tie up some salvage without he has to explain every move he makes?” said Matt.

Creit roared. “Salvage! That’s a good one.” The laughter petered out; there was a knowing look in his eyes.

INTO this Gramps walked with his unwilling granddaughter the next morning. He stomped up to the Old Man and without any preliminaries stated his errand. “I want to know which one o’ your boys was up to the lake with Jenny all day yesterday?” “Tarnation,” roared the Old Man, coming upright. “I can’t be rightly woke up yet. It sure is news to me.” Then seeing the crazy light in Gramp’s eyes an appreciative gleam came into his own that ended in a coarse cackle as his beard parted. “If it’s true you ought to be stepping on clouds ’stead of pulling that long face ”

“I’ve heard of you Breckners,” said Gramps. He pointed his finger right in the Old Man’s face.

“Fah,” snorted the Old Man.

“You’ll not wiggle out from under this. I’ll not stand for talk going on about my girl and if she’s old enough to go lolly-gagging she’s old enough to marry.” He looked around the room.

Matt started to say something but Creit cut him off. “You don’t have to marry her, Matt. He’s just an old crackpot.”

“Don’t you be calling me names.” Gramp’s voice rose to an unexpected squeak.

Jenny’s face was white and drawn. She had been crying and looked as though she might bolt and run at any moment. Matt felt the net close about him, an invisible tenuous thing but a net all the same. His color was up and his breathing labored.

“Well,” said Gramps. “You’ll marry her?”

The Old Man snorted. “They got nothing on you, boy,” said Creit. Ma resumed her rocking and her eyes closed away the room. Ida’s fingers drummed on the window sill. Andy sat silent.

Matt looked at Jenny. She seemed to be waiting for him to speak. His eyes turned to Gramps and he disposed of the question with a shrug. “Why not?”

Jenny looked startled, opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out.

“When?” said Gramps.

“I’m ready any time.” He might have been discussing the weather for all the emotion his voice registered.

Creit stared as though he couldn’t believe his ears. The Old Man laughed. “Well,” said Ida. “You’re gonna be one of us, honey,” and put her arms around Jenny. But Jenny turned her face away. Andy resumed his reading. Unnoticed, Ma left the room.

The wedding was scheduled for the next Saturday. Gramps had wanted a minister but Matt said the local justice of the peace would tie just as good a knot and Gramps, who had not anticipated such an easy victory in the matter of the marrying and had been prepared to go to court if necessary, did not pursue the argument further.

Andy moved his pillow and blankets from the attic which he had shared with Matt and appropriated the spare couch and a corner of the Jiving room.

“You could fix Matt’s room up some,” Creit said to Ida.

“If you think I haven’t got enough to do without . . .”

“There’s no need,” said Matt. “Guess she’ll have all the time in the world to fix it the way she wants.”

Creit looked over at him strangely. The bridal suite was ready.

MATT didn’t see Jenny again until Gramps walked her over on Saturday morning. She was arrayed in a new satin dress and she wore a flower in her hair. Her eyes held a pleading puppylike devotion that Matt chose to ignore. They drove the scant four miles to the justice of the peace with Ida and Creit sitting in front with Matt,

and Gramps and Jenny in the back of tte Old Man’s Model A. The brief ceremony was over in a matter of minutes.

Mitt, Ida and Creit relaxed on the way home, laughing and joshing one another while a pitiful smile grew more and more fixed on Jenny’s face.

“Now you’re one of us, boy,” said Creit.

“1 don’t feel no different,” said Matt.

“You’re a card, Matt. Hear that, Creit? He don't feel no different,” laughed Ida.

The Old Maw was bossy pouring drinks when they got home. He passed the bottle around.

Matt felt his mother’s eyes upon him and then she called Jenny. They conversed for a moment and then the young girl followed the older woman into the kitchen where Ma had made some cookies while they were gone. Jenny brought out a platterful and passed them.

She’s like a child dressed in grown-up clothes, thought Matt as he saw her slimness and the girlish curves that did not fill the fullness of the new dress.

For a brief moment the memory of the day at Hidden Lake came between them. He spurned his own weakness that let emotion rise and dwell unbidden like a flood. He wanted to take her in his arms even though she had dared to bring the foolish Gramps to demand marriage; even though, somehow, she had tricked him with her soft innocence; even though she had thrust herself upon him without a single invitation on his part unless . . . But of course she couldn’t read his mind.

His eyes were hard upon her so that she felt his gaze and turned hesitatingly, meeting his look with a questioning awareness. The Breckner blood that was in his veins would not let go of the words that sat on his lips without a struggle. Had they been alone at this moment he might have gone to her but he couldn’t lose face with the family surrounding them.

“Hey, Matt,” called Creit. Reluctantly he turned.

“Have another drink. A wedding’s no time to stay sober.” The bottle changed hands.

Bowman and Digby arrived with various offspring. “We hear you done it,” they said and clapped Matt on the shoulder so hard that he spun across the room.

Creit, Digby, Bowman and Andy got into a huddle. Pretty soon they called Matt over. “Hey, got your stake from the Old Man yet?”

“My timber?” said Matt. “He had a lease drawn up the other day. Got to be signed yet.”

“What are we waiting for, boy? Call the airlines for a plane. We could do with a couple of Seabees.”

“Yeah,” said Digby. “The sky’s the limit on any lease the Old Man signs these days with the price of timber being what it is. Remember when you

got married up with Ida, Creit?” “Do I?” said Creit.

“Yeah,” said Matt. “Yeah. A marriage ought to be celebrated.”

“Hear the boy,” said Creit.

“Yeah, but this is going to be different,” said Matt. “This is going to be a stag.” The boys hooted. “I’ve always known there’d be a lime I’d bust the town wide open and this is it. This is going to be a real humdinger and we don’t want no women. Tais is going to be a stag to top all stags.” “Listen to the boy,” said Creit admiringly.

“Hah,” laughed the others. “This is sure going to set bad with the islanders. This is going to play plain hell with our reputation. Nobody’s ever going to be able to top a stag honeymoon.”

“Ssh.” said Creit. He looked at the surrounding faces. “I hear a plane.” “Do tell,” snorted the Old Man. “They must be mind readers up there.” He had his cap in his hand and stomped ahead of them out the door and down the path that led to the bay.

“Can you beat that?” said Matt. “The Old Man must be-feeling his oats. He phoned the airlines while we were standing there gassing. Guess his rheumatics must be better. We won’t be rid of him for some time.”

Ten days later the six of them returned, a little wan in appearance, slightly the worse for wear but much the same. Matt found Jenny staring out the open kitchen window. In the gulf the sun was setting in a billow of flame. The down of shedding fireweed drifted aimlessly. It was close and hot so that the tang of the sea was almost nonexistent. In the distance they heard the call of a hooter.

Jenny looked small and defenseless facing out the window, her shoulders hunched. Matt felt a momentary pang of remorse. “We wouldn’t have been gone so long,” he said, “only we had to bail the Old Man out of jail.” He waited for some recognition of his return. “Well—.”

He swung her around, forced her to look at him then dropped her shoulders as though they were hot coals. Her eyes were lustreless and hard. Whatever feeling had been there was screened from his view. She’s like those others, he found himself thinking—like Digby’s and Bowman’s women . . . even Ma. He strode out of the room.

He remembered her as she had come that morning with her fanatic Gramps and scorn filled him. “They trick you into marriage,” he said. “And then . . .” He’d heard the words so many times, from Digby and Bowman and Creit. “They trick you into marriage.” He said the words over and over and at last he was beginning to believe them. There was no longer room for the doubt that had, from time to time, stirred uneasily within him.

He was a man grown and all Breckner. if