IS STEALING A GIRL REALLY STEALING?
P. B. Hughes
That brief long-ago summer in Newfoundland Robert wooed Tom's girl with bouquets of white lies. Then he found there's something stronger than love
AT THE END of my freshman year, when the examinations were over, I came home in the train to Oakville, where my father met me in the trap, and as we drove up the Seventh Line I told him about Galbraith, and my fat her looked thoughtful.
“Do you want to go, Robert?” he said.
I was a while answering. The young summer was bright around us and the fields were pale green with the new oats or shining with wheat, or the soft blue-green of pasture late in May, and I knew there was work to be done, hay for making, fallow to plow and harrow, and harvest to come, and that my place was home at Star-of-the-Sea with my father. But I could not put Galbraith from my mind.
“The work will be on the Newfoundland coast away north on the east coast. It’s lovely there in summer. If you’ve never seen the sea, you’d better come. All expenses and sixty dollars a month, paid by the foundation. You’ll do because you’re a farm boy and know about things that grow. We’ve got scientists by the dozen, but what we need is a man with sharp eyes and a bit of practical knowledge.”
At length I turned to my father, “There’s too much to be done, home.”
“Lots there is to be done,” he answered, “and there’s a lot of the world to be seen, and not always the chance to see it. I should miss you sorely, Robert, but I’ve Eric, and we’ll do well enough, with the girls to drive the team. Now answer my question.”
So I told him I wanted to go. I wanted to lay eyes on the ocean and see strange places, and I went on, trying to explain the urge that rises in a man, and my father listened, his eyes ahead, over the mare’s ears, and let me talk, and after we’d crossed Dundas Street and I’d come to an end he smiled, and said, a little wistfully, quoting Swinburne, though I didn’t know where it came Çrom, only that it seemed to say all that I’d been struggling with:
“The Thracian ships and the foreign faces, eh, Robert?”
THAT WAS HOW it was that I said good-by to my mother and sisters a few days later and my father drove me to Oakville again for the train, and I was off and it was five years before I came back, but neither I nor my father could foresee the way a job for the summer would stretch into so long an absence. I joined Galbraith and we went to Montreal and then to the Cape Breton Island port of North Sydney in the old Intercolonial Railway, and by steamer north, across the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and through the Strait of Belle Isle, touching the outports, and at last we entered the bay and went ashore at the mining settlement that was to be our home. And this journey was a great adventure, full of wonders, so that Galbraith, who was six years my senior, laughed at my pleasure in it.
“What did I tell you?” he asked, when we stood on the ship’s deck and I could not speak for the awe of the sea that bore us.
The night we landed we put up at the staff house, and we sat with Tom Jarrold who was resident engineer and a classmate of Johnnie Galbraith’s, and Thetis, Tom’s girl, and that night was the beginning of the little comedy of calf love that was played with me as villain, a comedy that ended with the end of the brief Newfoundland summer, a grey wind blowing out of the western ocean with rain in its teeth, and winter lowering, the winter of 1914.
Long ago? Ah, it is, so long that wisdom says it is not she that comes back through time, not Thetis at all, that I cannot really remember her, nor indeed what myself was like, young Robert Laughlin, long since, like Thetis, dust.
Wisdom’s the cold tea that’s left when the wine cellar’s empty.
I was the villain, but not by design, at least in the beginning. Love comes unawares, gently; how should a man know a small ache at the sea’s voice, a catch in his throat as he listens to the thunder of the long seas breaking, are forerunners of the stress of love? Yet in those afternoons, while Tom taught me to jig a salmon, or Thetis to sail a boat, while we swam in the dark pool of Cartwright’s Brook, or at night sat about our driftwood fire on the spit fathoming the depth of stars, love took me into possession and I became thrall and Thetis became my girl instead of Tom’s.
Secret between us was the transfer, effected in solemn words spoken under the bright sky as we floated together in a dory on the bay. Ho! I remember the long Continued on page 40
Is Stealing a Girl Really Stealing?
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 23
talking, the ripple and splash of water, the rise and fall of the boat on the ground swell, and the strange, rapturous way of speech between us, and I remember—wisdom to the contrary —the likeness and look of her, and the touch of her hand, but the words are lost and all the pattern of the fabric Í of dreams has escaped me somewhere I along the years. And the deceit began that hour, innocently.
It was a curious relationship that existed between Thetis and Tom, begun in childhood, sustained, 1 think, without demonstration of affection, respected by everyone except me and Thetis’ mother, who strove against it, she having some idea of an alliance with one of the great trading families of St. John’s. The deceit lay in this; nothing seemed changed after Thetis and 1 had made our promises. We four were still together each day ¡ after Johnnie and 1 liad put away ' our samples and catalogues and the i whistle at the mine office had blown. Neither Thetis nor I told Tom that we were sworn, and I do not know why we did not, except that Tom had a bitter, derisive tongue when the mood was on him. Or maybe it was that the love between us was too precious for the world to know about or understand. First love is a terrible thing, for all that it’s stuff for laughter, though I have thought that most men do their laughing with a small, secret twinge of remembered pain.
July ended and the fateful August came, and the world trembk;d with the guns’ shouting, and still Thetis and I walked in our dream, unaware of the portent of what was happening. Even when the young officer from St. John’s arrived and took up quarters at the staff house, entering up his list of volunteers for the Regiment, there was no reality in it for us. Johnnie Galbraith’s sudden departure in the midAugust boat, leaving me to pack up our specimens and complete our notes, awakened us not at all. The wind blew softly and the sun shone, and the golden summer lingered, and our feet were set to the measure of the elemental music; there was neither tomorrow nor yesterday, only to each the presence of the other, and the sea singing, and so the days passed and August went its course. And then the time approached for me to go home, and we could no longer ignore the impending separation.
My passage was in the steamer in the first week of September, and about the first day of that month the rain came, cold and dreary, and the sea grew dark and foreboding that had sparkled in the sun for us. The samples were packed, the notes completed, and the lot transferred to the steamer shed, consigned to Johnnie at Toronto. It was material for a thesis on the occurrence of certain botanical species in the presence of metallic ores, or something like that . . . anyway, the thesis was never written, for Johnnie was killed at Passchendaele in T7.
THE SAILING was only a few days off when Thetis and I stood huddled together in the rain-swept road and formed our plan of a flight by sea and a marriage on the mainland, and a return together to my father’s house. And the next day, having received my pay from the foundation, I booked a passage lor her in my own ship.
That night I sat with Tom in the
staff house, and the officer from St. John’s argued the Regiment up and down, while Tom held to his stand that war was a politicians’ game and best left to them and the hotheads he’d already signed up to carry it on. It was the way he’d been all along. The officer said: “Well, Tom, it’s still a
free country, this, hut if you’re coming you’ll have to look sharp, for we’re sailing the day after tomorrow at crack of dawn for St. John’s by the east coast outports.”
“Day after tomorrow?” I questioned. “She’s west coast for North Sydney.
1 know, I’m sailing in her.”
“Roth,” he said, “for ours is a special trip. Both steamers sail on the same tide. Doesn’t happen often in the outports.”
It was a coincidence, and one that was to affect Thetis and me, hut I didn’t know it then. I said to Tom: “Let’s go over to Thet’s.” 1 knew he wouldn’t come, the way things were between him and the mother, and so 1 went alone, for I was not considered a menace to any matrimonial plans, and I sat with Thetis and the family I was to rob, never thinking what a rogue I was. When 1 left, Thetis’ mother followed me out the door.
“Tom Jarrold’s signed for the Regiment, has he?” she asked when we were alone.
“No, ma’am, not Tom, I guess,” said I, thinking how disappointed she’d be.
“He will. I know the Jarrolds of Carbonear.” With that she left me, and Í walked back to the staff house, putting two and two together, and arriving at a sum that made me afraid. For Thetis, leaving Tom here was one thing. She would think of him sometimes, think of him safe and sound in his ordinary routine of life, and gradually forget him—but Tom off to the wars, Tom with a sword in his hand, was another . . . Suddenly I knew a doubt of the constancy of a love sprung into flame in the magic of a summer and I said to myself, “There is another kind of love, that smolders and burns through long association and goes on forever, the kind the Prayer Book talks about, that you don’t see, and perhaps she has such a love for Tom, and I om for her, and they don’t know it. And I answered myself: “There is no love
like ours,” and I went on, taking a resolution that 1 was soon to have to put into effect.
TOM WAS in his room. I went in, and I knew at a glance the old lady was right, what Tom was going to do. His books were off their shelves, and he was writing.
“Tom, are you going?” 1 said.
He laughed. “For sure, lad. It’s a stupid business, hut we’ve got to show the world what the Island can do. Why don’t you come along with me? You’ll only be doing the same thing when you get home, and we’d do fine together. You’ll pass for eighteen.”
I stood there and thought, and then I asked him another question.
“When will you tell Thetis?”
He kicked the wastepaper basket restlessly. “I dread it, Boh, and that s the truth. There’ll be tears. I suppose it’ll have to be tomorrow.”
“Tom,” 1 said, “would you like me to tell her for you? I’ll get up there
early, and I’ll tell her to come down and see you after she’s done any erving she’s going to do, eh?”
He fell in with that, gratefully enough, and I, schemer and villain, went to my room and thought it all out again, and in the morning I went to Thetis’ house, and first 1 saw her mother, and told her about Tom.
I told her cleverly, leaving her with one idea, that Thetis must not hear of it lest she run off with him to St. John’s, and it wasn’t difficult to hint such a filing to the mother’s anxious and sympathetic ear and so I drew her into my conspiracy. Unaware she was of the real danger that stood before her, glib and sly, as she agreed that Thetis should spend the best part of t his day with me at Cartwright’s Brook.
“And when I bring her back,” I said, “you must keep her at home by hook or by crook so that she doesn’t meet anyone that will speak of Tom. Of course, she’ll want to go down to the quay at daylight; there’ll be a crowd to see the ships off, but I’ll come for her, myself, if you like, and keep her close to me, and I won’t say good-by to her till the ship’s about to sail, and by that time the other will be sailing too, and she won’t know about Tom before it’s too late.”
The old lady warmed to me. I knew I had a trustworthy ally.
ÏT WAS overcast but not raining and .■.Thetis and 1 took John Arnold’s dory and rowed to the brook, but we didn’t fish, just sat side by side on the bank, the two of us on the brink of the great adventure, she a little sad for all the happiness we talked about, I preoccupied with my secret arrangements. In the early afternoon we set out for home, and on the way Thetis said: ‘‘I must
see Tom. I cannot go without telling him.”
And I, ready for this, said, ‘‘Should I not tell him first, and you can meet him tonight and say good-by?”
She bowed her head, thinking, I hoped, what a manly fellow I was, and when we landed and secured the boat I got her to go home by way of the woods and I left her with her mother. At the staff house I found Tom and said, ‘‘Tom, I’d better see you alone.” On the veranda, I told him what Thetis had said, that if he went to the Regiment she never wanted to see him again, and Tom swallowed it as I thought he would, trusting of the false friend, amazed and hurt and angry.
“She’ll wait long, then,” he said bitterly, “aye, long and long.” And he turned away and went off to where the boys were gathered in farewell merriment. For me, 1 went off to Thetis’ house again, welcome as 1 was now by the old lady, and 1 got Thetis alone after a bit, but I didn’t speak at once, acting out my part.
“Oh, Robert, Robert,” she said, “have you told him?”
“I have,” I said, reluctantly.
1 here were tears in her eyes as she waited for me to go on, and the tears did not abate my resolution.
“He said you might go with me.”
She waited still, and at length I spoke again. ‘‘And the two of us might go to the devil for all of him, so long as he never had to see your face again.”
I took her in my arms, for indeed I did not want her to see the lies in my face, and I felt her tremble. Then she sprang back, eyes flashing.
“I’ll be ready, Robert, when you come, early in the day, and . . . and you can tell Tom Jarrold there is no friendship between us any more, now or forever, and that is the last time I shall say his name.”
So back I went to the staff house and I sat with Tom through the rowdy
dinner that marked the last night, each of us forcing the pace to hide his own way of feeling, and we sang the old come-all-ye’s of Newfoundland, and the night passed with comings and goings, and of the dozen lads that celebrated their departure there, not the half ever returned, and many a similar party was held in that autumn of 1914.
“OKFORE daylight I slipped away, J3and Thetis was ready and we made our way to the jetty in the darkness, hand in hand, and at the shed, deserted by all but a handful of stevedores, I left her so that she might go aboard, and returned to join Tom, who urged me again to go with him to the Regiment.
I thought: “There’s a loneliness
upon him,” and 1 relented not one whit, but told some more lies, I suppose, and after a while the wagon came for the hand luggage, and the little band started off for their ship, and I along with them for mine.
There was a drizzle of rain now, and as we came afoot down the hill in the faint, watery dawn, even the noisiest of us fell silent, and if was in silence we entered the shed, where a little crowd was gathered under the yellow, fog-shrouded electric bulbs. A woman sobbed somewhere, and you could hear flu; sound of falling water from the ships’ sides, and the gulls crying beyond. Little groups formed, speaking in low voices. Tom looked neither right nor left, but headed straight for the gangway. He smiled a little when I wished him luck, but his face was dark as he disappeared aboard. My treachery had succeeded, and there was nothing more to be done, so I hastened to the steamer lying outboard, went over the side, and found Thetis waiting for me.
We stood together on the deck, and that moment comes back to me and puzzles me still, the drifting mist of early morning and the yellow lights, the smell of warm oil and steam from the engine room hatch, and Thetis, rain shining in her hair, and I suddenly speaking in a voice that was not mine.
11 was the voice of some vestige of honor, speaking aloud: ‘‘It is not true.
I did not tell Tom. He’s in the other ship. He’s for the Regiment.”
She turned from me slowly, and I stood with my arms stretched out, and then she was away, across the gangway and along the jetty, and I after her, both of us heedless of the warning shouts from the ship’s bridge and the clanking of her windlass as the breast rope was hove in.
She flew up the gangway of the other ship, and there, turning forward, she found Tom on the fo’c’sle head, and then they were in each others’ arms and I stood a little wav off, aware that they were saying things that were not for any other to hear, except maybe Hod, and I was without volition, unaware of time or circumstance, unaware of tht; blast of a ship’s siren as the North Sydney boat swung away from the jetty, engines astern on a taut spring, and moved off into the gloom. Then Thetis took my hand, and she kissed me, but no word was said, and she was gone. I felt the deck shiver under my feet, and I was walking aft with Tom, and the two of us were standing at the taffrail as the steamer moved towards the sea, and in that manner, half in a dream, I started for the Regiment and the unexpected years of absence from my home.
The vessel’s quarter swung close to the people waving, and it was among them I saw Thetis for the last time, and I knew that the summer was ended indeed, knew for whom she wept as the waters swirled and widened between us under a leaden sky. ^