Her name was Eressa Duncan, wife of Brad Duncan, Halcyon Cove, N.S. Her back was toward us when we entered the kitchen that midday, polite pretence that she hadn’t seen her husband approaching with a stranger, though one could see the length and breadth of the Cove from their kitchen window.
“Set another place, Ressie, we’ve got company. My new friend nudged me into the room as he spoke, and she turned to meet the unexpected guest. I saw a dumpy, middle-aged woman with a sallow, pear-shaped face and mild blue eyes. Her hair, red once, was now the neutral shade of faded brick. Why do redheads never achieve pure white or grey? Over her house dress an apron crackled with starch, a dead giveaway had I known it, for visitors always merited a clean apron.
“This here’s Allistair Gregg, Ressie, from Toronto. He wants a place to board for a couple o’ weeks.”
“Kindly welcome, I’m sure.” She offered me a pudgy, veined hand.
“He’s a painter,” Brad went on. “Not houses or barns a picture painter. He’s going to paint the Cove.”
His tone implied no respect for my aim so I hastened to explain that I was only a holiday artist, painting on my vacations from the office. A friend, I said, Harry Munroe, who had spent boyhood summers here, recommended the Cove when he learned I was coming to Nova Scotia. They remembered Harry. He’d been kin to a former pastor.
“And he sent you to us,” marveled Mrs. Duncan. “Imagine! After all these years.”
“Well, sort of,” I hedged. Harry had named no one in particular at Halcyon Cove. “Knock on any door,” he advised. “They’ll take you in or they’ve sadly changed. Most hospitable people in the world, believe me.”
I hadn’t knocked on any doors; I had spoken to the first man I met, Brad Duncan, and here I was with a dinner invitation.
“Get busy, Ressie, and gab after,” her husband told her impatiently. “I’m hungry enough to eat raw squid.”
Brad was tall, spare, grizzled, with craggy features and sharp brown eyes. Fast sixty, he’d been at sea for forty-odd years, he’d told me. Now him and a young fellow fished offshore. Weren’t much in it nowadays, not with them trawlers scratchin’ up everything that had fins or scales, dangblast em!
Mrs. Duncan threw me a rueful smile. “Dinner's all ready to dish up, but it’s only potluck, I'm afraid. I wasn’t looking for company.” I forget what the potluck was that day. I do know it was good. Everything Ressie Duncan cooked was good and my memories of the Cove are redolent with the odors of her stews, succulent meat and vegetables in an herb-flecked gravy on which floated dumplings as light as an angel’s pinfeather; her fillets of halibut, haddock or cod, fried to Afric brown yet innocent of grease. She may have lacked humor and been limited in perception but if anyone ever rated a cordon bleu it was Ressie Duncan. During the meal it was settled that I stay with them at a very modest charge.
"Best not decide till you’ve seen your quarters,” advised Brad. "We’ve no store-bought mattresses or fancy gear, an’ the plumbing’s just a chamber pot and a convenience back o’ the woodshed. Still you’re welcome as a run o’ spring mackerel to what we’ve got.”
I gave a sigh of repletion. "I’ll sleep in your woodshed if I can enjoy Mrs Duncan’s cooking three times a day.”
I meant it.
He chuckled. "She don’t do too bad, ’Course I taught her myself. Couldn’t fry a ’tater when I first married her, but she learned.”
"You’re making that up, Brad Duncan. I could cook as well as teach school long before I met you.” Her annoyance wasn’t feigned. She’d no patience with jokes, large or small.
Later on she took me upstairs to my quarters, a small neat room with a sloping ceiling, hideous wallpaper and a window facing the sea.
"The bed’s real soft. A feather tick on top of the straw makes it comfortable.” It was a comfortable bed I found, and almost a museum piece with its four posts topped by carved dolphins.
"Brad’s grandfather made that bed. He used to carve figureheads for vessels, times when vessels had figureheads. A master at it, Brad says I daresay. I never met him nor any of Brad’s family. Brad was as kinless as me when we first met. We still are, ’cept for each other. Kinless and childless.”
Downstairs she made me free of the parlor. "Brad and I sit in the kitchen, mostly, but you’re welcome to take your ease in here whenever you like.”
A man would find scant ease in here I thought, looking askance at the spindly parlor suite, rocker, armchair and settee brave in vermilion and yellow plush, the centre table draped in white crochet on which a conch shell hobnobbed with a vase of paper flowers, the two cane-bottomed chairs flanking a cactus on a rustic stand. Fierce-eyed enlargements, male and female, glared from the walls, resembling neither Brad nor his wife, though surely only family ties could warrant their presence. I sought the small bookshelf in a corner. I’m always interested in what people read. Thrilling Experiences in Discovering the Poles, The Tragedy of the Titanic, The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, three books by Mary J. Holmes, some Atlantic Readers, an Arithmetic for Common Schools . . ah yes. Mrs. Duncan had been a teacher. By them were two volumes on navigation.
"Brad got them when we were first married.” She’d been following my glance. "When he was studying for his ticket.”
"His ticket?” I puzzled.
"To be a ship’s officer. Third mate, second, mate, captain, you have to write your ticket . . . pass exams, that is, for them.”
"I see. In that case I suppose I ought to call Mr. Duncan, Captain Duncan?”
"No.” Her eyes and voice became bleak. "Brad Duncan’s all he can claim.” She busied herself with the cactus and I bit back the questions I longed to ask. It was none of my business. Yet, forty-odd years at sea! Surely a man deserved advancement in that length of time. Perhaps when they knew me better I’d learn the answer to this little mystery. Meanwhile I’d better get some painting done while the light was good.
HOW I painted that wonderful, wonderful summer. The Cove is a perfect horseshoe bitten from the rolling granite hills. At ebb tide the fishhouses and wharves seem on stilts, rimming the water’s edge, with the dwellings scattered higher up wherever the terrain is level. No trees grow there, no lawns or gardens, only gorse and thick-stalked weeds that flourish on practically nothing cling to the barren rocks; but if is beautiful. Not tourist-bureau beautiful . . . beautiful as in El Greco, say, with discipline and integrity in the blues and greys of sea and rocks, a sternness in the contours, a pride and fortitude in every low-eaved cottage. I painted what I saw and it was good.
The Duncans didn’t think so. Mrs. Brad, as I learned to call her following the custom of the Cove, was horribly disappointed when she first saw my work, though all she said was, "My, you use a lot of paint.” Brad said nothing but "Humph!” I’m afraid he thought me a sissy, for on the only occasion that I went with him to the fishing grounds I was abominably seasick. He could overlook me "messin’ around with paints” had I only had stomach for a morning swell. So he liked me with reservations. Mrs. Brad took me as I was and mothered me at a respectful distance. Anything she could wash she washed, anything she could darn she darned, and her cooking was superb.
"You hadn’t ought to make your own bed,” she protested the first morning that I coped successfully with the feather tick.
"Force of habit, and army training,” I told her. She had to give in for I made my bed before I went down to breakfast but she refused to let me help her with the dishes.
"It’s woman’s work. It demeans a man to wash and wipe.”
I laughed. "My dear Mrs. Brad, some of my friends should hear you. Nearly all the married ones are working couples and they share the housework, meals, dishes, everything.”
"Tain’t fitting,” she persisted, removing the towel from my grasp. "Men’s work, women’s work—they don’t mix. Leastways not at the Cove.”
Certainly not at the Cove. Bit by bit I discovered how rigid were the rules, Victorian vestiges, that still governed life at Halcyon Cove. A man provided shelter and food; he was master of his house, keeper of the purse, the great Mr. Big. He might do a few chores for "the woman,” such as making kindling or filling the woodbox but he’d never stoop to clean any litter he might make on her newly scrubbed floor while he was doing such tasks. He might or might not carry in water. A strong-minded woman was anathema, and all men feared the stigma of being hen-pecked. Cove women didn’t smoke or drink or use make-up, though they crimped their hair with home permanents to dire effect.
Out of doors men walked ahead, followed by their wives and children. On the first Sunday morning going to church I caused Mrs. Brad much distress by lagging behind Brad to wait for her. Only courting couples walked side by side.
Yes, the Cove was a man’s world.
I STAYED with the Duncans for three weeks that summer and my sketch book is filled with bits and pieces that bring the holiday back to me, yet I was woefully unobservant. I have sketches of Brad and his helper. Dennie Grono, at work in the fishhouse; of the schooner Karl M. that called at the Cove twice a week to take fish to the city; I have drawings of the flakes on which cod dried to old ivory in the sun, of drying nets, and beached dories. As I look at these drawings I can smell tar, salt, iodine, rotting fish, seaweed, feel the sea wind against my cheek, hear the melancholy foghorn at the lighthouse . . . and know less than nothing about Brad’s actual fishing.
As to the relations between Mrs. Brad and her husband, they were ordinary, I guess. She was a dutiful wife, and if I never saw any passages of affection, neither did I hear any nagging or bickering. They took each other for granted. Not a bad thing in the frosty sixties.
On my last evening at the Cove, Mrs. Brad produced a piece of burlap taut in a wooden frame about two by three feet. She aimed to hook a mat, she said, and wondered if I’d draw her a "pattrun.”
"What kind?” I asked, thinking she’d want a simple geometric design or a stylized leaf and flower.
"It’s this calendar picture. Smith’s General Store, Brad,” she said to her husband, “the one of the moose.”
"That’d make a real fancy mat,” he approved, "if you can manage it.” This was to me.
I’m no expert on animal anatomy, nor, I suspect, was the original artist: however, I took a crayon and, enlarging as I went, made a faithful copy for her to follow with her mat hook and rags. The moose was standing in a shallow pond, water up to his shins ... or whatever corresponds to shins on the monarch of the forest, munching the lily pads. One lily pad dangled from the corner of his mouth and his face had the benign expression of a spaghetti lover at his favorite occupation. Sunset gilded the water, the tangle of bushes at the rim of the pond, the trees in the background, and the sky was a riot of reds, mauves and orange-yellows.
"You’ll need plenty of colors.” I observed, "if you follow this exactly.”
”I have scads of mat rags,” she assured me. "I picked them over today. If I haven’t the right colors I can dye some.” She brought a basket from the hall. "Look at these.”
"Indeed you have a selection.” I picked up a handful of gaudy strips. "Here’s a red that’s perfect for that bit in the corner, isn’t it, Brad? And this will do for those trees on the skyline.”
He didn’t reply and I felt a flash of annoyance. Did he think my interest in Mrs. Brad’s mat another sign of effeminacy and was his silence a snub? Hang it all ! She’s asked me to draw the design. He’d watched while I was at work, even made a suggestion or two about the background. Nettled, I repeated my question. Brad shrugged his lean shoulders. "Don’t ask me about your reds and greens. I can’t tell one from t’other.” He laughed harshly. "I’m a color-blind freak, ain’t I, Ressie?”
"Color-blind?” I echoed. "How . .. .” I nearly said "awful” and changed it to "odd.”
"Yeah. That’s what I am.”
"Funny thing, I never knew it till I was married. Come as a surprise when they told me what ailed me.”
"They?” I was trying to imagine what Brad’s world was like. Did all things appear in shades of grey, or did it lack only one or two spectral colors? Did a red rose have a scarlet leaf? Was a bluebird no brighter than a sparrow?
"Board of Examiners. Navigation School. When I went to write my ticket. They said I couldn’t tell port from starboard lights . . . so they washed me out. Quite rightly. A man standing watch needs to tell red from green.”
"You could tell them apart,” Mrs. Brad broke in hotly, "if you tried. Maybe they look more alike to you than to most folks, but you could have learned the difference if you’d put your mind to it. No. Not you. You took their say-so and 'ordinary seaman,’ 'carpenter,’ 'cook’ is all was ever writ after Brad Duncan in ships’ articles.”
"At least I’ve no foundered vessels or drowned men on my conscience.” The kitchen picked up the bitter tones and I knew it wasn’t the first time the walls had caught the altercation. "In the dark, with fear in my mind, can’t you see I’d never be sure? Dear God! Help me to guess right. That’s not seamanship.” He turned to me. "She thought she could learn me. Maybe a smarter man could catch on but not me. I knew in a pinch I’d get rattled and make a mistake.”
I murmured something sympathetic, avoiding one glaring fact. Surely a young man with ambition, and Brad must have had ambition, could have found another path where his handicap was nullified? He read my thoughts.
“Once a seaman you ain’t happy no place else. Salt’s in your blood and land holds no comfort.”
"You’re fain to creep back at long last, though. When they won’t sign you on ’count of your age, you creep back to dry land. And what have you got for your years at sea? No pensions, no gold watches inscribed, 'long and faithful service,’ no silver trays. Nothing.”
"Hold your tongue, woman. I’m content if you ain’t. We’ve got our own place and a bit put by, we don’t owe a cent, and I’m still hale and hearty if I am sixty gone. I never made you a captain’s lady, like you hoped, but I’ve done my best for us both. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
"Thankful for small mercies,” she replied tartly. Very small mercies, she implied.
Pity for her and respect for Brad made me, wisely, take no sides. She must have been lonely in the long years when he was at sea. On the other hand Brad, with the sea in his blood, had dedicated himself to service without hope of reward. Few men could do that.
After that night I returned to Toronto, the office and the dismal grind, until one grand glorious day a few months later when a certain beer company, modern patron of the arts, bought three of my Halcyon Cove paintings.
I resigned at once. The next years are a patchwork of dark and light, of wandering, of work, and it wasn’t until the fourth summer that I returned in June to Halcyon Cove.
I FOUND the Cove had changed. More and more dwellings had been put up—not old-style Cape Cod, but jerry-built little boxes of colored tar paper, reds and greens and imitation brick, the kind a man can put up in a day if he’s content to be housed in one or two rooms. They disfigured the Cove. I said as much.
"Folks have got to have a place to live,” commented Mrs. Brad. "Lots of strangers have moved in, for it’s cheaper out here. We’re only thirty miles from the city and you’d be surprised how many travel back and forth to work. It’s just an hour’s car ride.”
"I’ve noticed there are a lot of cars,” I said.
"More cars, less boats. Hardly any fishing ’cept by a few old-timers like me and Sid Innies,” said Brad. "Used to be different. Only things open to a Cove man, years back, was offshore fishing or going aboard a vessel. Now he’s got opportunities galore. Truck-driving, defense work, bridges, roads— you’d be amazed at the jobs they hold. Some take courses, too, and learn trades. You mind Dennie Grono? He’s a plumber, now.” Brad sighed. "Ah! The times that was. You knew the Karl M. was lost?”
"Yes. Went down with all hands in a September gale. Now a truck comes from the city to pick up the fish. Weren’t worth while to put another vessel on the run.”
Things had changed. And people. Mrs. Brad remained the same, a little plumper perhaps and less active; the greater change was in Brad. He was leaner than ever and his skin had a waxy tinge that worried me. He’d been an excellent trencherman but now he picked at his food and complained of indigestion.
"You put too much seasonin’ in your grub, Ressie,” he’d say. "What’s come over you? Stews, roasts, hash, every blazin’ bite near burns the gizzard outa me!”
"I cook the same as ever,” she’d reply placidly. "Don’t eat so fast and take a dose of soda.”
Brad would swear and growl and top his meal with bicarbonate.
I tried to discount his symptoms at first for many persons have poor digestion as they get older. Then one afternoon I came on him leaning against the fishhouse door, clutching his breast.
"Brad! What’s the matter, man?” I cried in alarm. "Can I help you?”
"Just . . . indigestion ...” he gasped through grey lips. "I’ll be all . . .right. It’s . . . nothing.”
I waited anxiously, relieved after a minute or two to see the color once again in his face. He straightened up.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhh ! That’s better. I get colic every time I have cod and pork scraps.” We went inside and sat on a bench.
"Brad,” I declared firmly, "you’re a sick man and you know it. An attack like this isn’t simple indigestion. Why don’t you see a doctor?”
"He’d only give it a fancy name.”
"That’s stupid, Brad. You mustn’t take chances with your health. Let me run you into the city this afternoon. You could have a check up and be back by supper time.”
"No. You mean well, boy, but I’m not going to a doctor.”
I felt it was useless to argue with him then. I’d have a talk with Mrs. Brad, I decided, before I tried again. He guessed my thought.
"Don’t you say a word to Ressie about this. ’Twon’t change things and I'm not going to worry her. She’s enough to worry her, more’s the pity.” My suspicions were kindled. Something other than ill health preyed upon him. Although I dislike persons who pry and shrink from being counted in their number, I braved a rebuff.
"You’re in trouble, Brad. I know you are. What’s the matter?” I asked.
For a long moment he waited, his jaw clenching and unclenching with emotion and I put on the pressure of silence. Finally he said, "I’ve lost everything I put by . . . three thousand I had in the bank and two thousand insurance. Gone. Nigh every cent I had.”
"How dreadful. What happened?”
"Ever hear tell of the Provincial Industries and Thrift Corporation? It went, bust about a year ago. Government investigation, a big to-do in the papers and law courts. A hundred and thirty thousand dollars missing, nobody knows where. Thousands of small shareholders robbed ... I was one of ’em.”
"How could you risk all you had?” A tactless question. Poor gullible Brad.
"A glib talker came around and hooked me. He’s in jail now, though that’s small comfort. Scheme was to build up Nova Scotian industries, like model dairies and fish-packing plants. You’d get up to eight or ten percent on your money and were guaranteed never less than six percent. Sounded mighty good.”
"Yes,” I agreed.
"I was cautious so I only put in a thousand at first. In less than a month I got a cheque for thirty dollars and a typewrit slip. This weren’t interest, it was clear profit. Dividends. Thirty multiplied by twelve comes to three hundred and sixty dollars. Multiply that by five . . . seemed like I was throwing away a damn good chance if I didn’t give ’em the rest of my money, so I did.” He sighed. "That thirty dollars was all I ever got.”
"That’s why I can’t go to a doctor,” Brad went on. "I can’t afford to be told I’m sick. I’m not. It’s just this plagued worry, worry, worry — no wonder my stomach’s like a churn. I can’t make enough fishin’ alone, and it’s impossible to get a helper. It don't take much to keep us. If only there was a bit comin’ in steady. When I think of them damn robbers! We could have lived five or six years on what they stole from me.” He got to his feet. "But I’ve no right to burden you with my troubles, boy. Things'll work out some how. They always do.”
"Have you thought of working in the city?” I asked tentatively. "Checking ships’ stores, for instance, or keeping watch?” Surely work for Brad would be available in a great seaport like Halifax.
"We couldn’t leave the Cove. Ressie and me’d be as out of place as a couple of rockin’ chairs in a dory.”
True. I couldn’t imagine them in a city tenement and Brad was too old for the strain of traveling sixty miles, day in, day out, by car. He was leery of cars anyway. Only once had I persuaded him into mine.
"Funny. I never touched that money while it was in the bank. Good times or bad we managed without it. Now it’s gone, I’m all upset.”
Ah! Brad, I thought, they robbed you of your sense of security, a far viler theft than mere money.
I’D MADE no promise so at the first opportunity I talked with Mrs. Brad about getting him to a doctor. He wasn’t well, I was certain, and the strain of heavy lifting—for full nets are heavy—plus his mental distress, might be causing a stomach ulcer, or something. I’m no medical man but I knew he wasn’t in good shape.
"Yes,” Mrs. Brad agreed completely, "he ought to see a doctor. I’ve been after him. It’s his nerves, I think.” Her placid face showed no deep concern. "Worry plays cruel on your nerves. He told you what happened to the money?”
"I told him it wasn’t safe, now see where we are.” She moved to the stove and stirred a pot.
I looked through the window across the Cove. Monday washes billowed near every dwelling, splashing grey rocks with color, and a bright ribbon of children steamed from the schoolhouse door for morning recess. A thought struck me..
"Couldn’t you go back to teaching, Mrs. Brad?” I knew the school was overcrowded and there was some mention of having double sessions, or building on another schoolroom next term.
"Gracious, no!” She was shocked at my proposal. "Brad wouldn’t hear of it, though teachers are scarce and my license is permanent. He’d never let me.”
I’d forgotten the mores of Halcyon Cove. A man supported his wife, not vice versa. I couldn’t help balancing it against Brad’s prayer for a "bit coming in steady.” Tradition, alas, would tip the scale. I had another inspiration. "Why not board the teachers, then?”
"Oh! no.” This time her denial was more fervent. "I’d never consent to that.”
Her faded eyes held pity for my innocence. "Brad’s a good man and no skirt-chaser, but he’s human. I don’t want some flighty young thing around making trouble between us.”
"That’s ridiculous,” I protested, trying not to smile.
"Ridiculous or not, I shan’t risk it. Of course, if Brad thinks of it himself I’d have to . . . but don’t you put the idea in his head.”
My ideas were all exhausted so the matter was dropped though privately I resolved to pay high rates this time for my own board at the Cove. And since they were not overly concerned about his need for medical care, I was in no position to force a doctor on them, no matter what my own misgivings.
About noon two or three days later as I was sketching by Brad’s wharf I saw him coming in from sea. He cut the engine and guided the boat to anchorage in the channel, for the tide was low; then getting into his dinghy, moored and waiting there, he began to row toward the shore. Brad always faced the bow of the boat, thrusting instead of pulling against the water, the oars moving with strong vigorous strokes only a lifetime’s practice could achieve.
I gathered up my things and walked around the fishhouse to meet him on the wharf. By this time Brad’s boat was no longer in my line of vision, since the tide, as I’ve said, was at ebb, but was hidden at the foot of the wharf. He’d tie it there and climb the ladder nailed at the side of the pilings.
Three gulls wheeled nearby and for an instant I thought the unearthly cry, sharp and sudden on the noontide air, came from them. Then Brad’s head and shoulders came over the edge of the wharf, face ashen, mouth working soundlessly, and I knew tragedy was upon us.
"Hold on, Brad! I’m coming.” I darted forward reaching for him. Too late. My fingers barely touched him as he slipped from the ladder, eel-limp. Dead, I am sure, before he crashed into the little boat below.
NO INQUEST was necessary, the doctor who was also the district coroner decided. Death was due to coronary thrombosis. Heart failure. Heart strain. Brad’s "indigestion” had been an unheeded signpost to the presence of disease.
I’ll skip the next three days. Death shouldn’t mean a parade of ghoulish, prying humans, from the very old to babes in arms, "viewing the remains” and "payin’ their respects,” recounting with macabre relish how they "knowed he weren’t for long” and "anybody could see he was failin’.” It shouldn’t be a gloomy festival, a country fair in crepe, with every Jack, Jill and Jethro who could possibly attend flocking to the cottage, thence to the church, and . . . still going strong ... to the corpse’s last resting place. It shouldn’t be, but it was.
Inland about a mile, where there is earth enough for a grave, the Cove people bury their dead and there, on a fine June afternoon, we buried Brad Duncan. A small old graveyard it is, with crumbling moss-grown stones dating back a hundred years and shapeless mounds covered with creeping ivy and wild briar.
Caught by the sea wind the minister’s robe billowed against Mrs. Brad’s funeral silk and I forgot to listen, lost in comparing the two blacks, the dull greens in the cleric’s gown and the zigzag highlights on hers. Accompanied by a neighbor, Mrs. Butler, a thin woman with shoe-button yes, she stood a little apart from the rest. Mrs. Brad, to quote another current phrase, was bearin’ up good.” She had shown amazing self-control.
"So this is what it’s like,” she’d murmured to me at the wharf as we waited for the doctor. "You know . . . I’ve often wondered how it would happen. When Brad’d set off on a voyage, I’d think . . . will this be the last time I see him? Will he be lost at sea? Every good-by was . . . sort of final . . . if you know what I mean. And now, when it is final ...” Her voice trailed away, then added, "He was a good man, was Brad.”
Every parting is a little death, I thought.
She hadn’t cried, unless in private. Though, come to think of it, she’d had no privacy since we brought Brad’s body home, for hard on the heels of the news Mrs. Butler had come to lend aid and solace to the bereaved and to my knowledge hadn’t left Mrs. Brad alone for five minutes. They’d slept together, sharing the bed that Brad had so lately warmed, and seemed puzzled when I offered to let them have my room and sleep on the couch in the kitchen. Yet we are called the insensitive sex.
Mrs. Butler returned to the cottage with us after the service. "Now you jest set in the parlor with Mr. Gregg,” she said to Mrs. Brad, with a fine mixture of command and coaxing. "I’ll get supper. Funerals is terrible wearin’ and you need to rest.”
I was glad she made the suggestion for I wanted to talk with Mrs. Brad in private. I’d decided to buy her cottage, allowing her to remain in it, of course, as long as she wished. My resources were limited but I knew I could borrow the money and the purchase price would give her something to live on. The funeral expenses, I’d gathered, would entirely exhaust Brad’s shrunken bank account. Some of my friends would think me foolish and quixotic, burdening myself with debt for one who had no claim on me. That was my affair. It would be pleasant to have a pied-à-terre whenever I returned to Nova Scotia. I had no other responsibilities or dwelling, for my own mother had died when I was slogging it out on the Scheldt in ’44, and my sisters were married . . . and what else could I do? Brad Duncan had been my good friend.
I’M GLAD to sit down,” Mrs. Brad admitted, taking the rocker while I tried out the spindly settee. Considering the strain of the past few days she looked very fresh. Dishes rattled from the kitchen and I tried to think of a tactful way to broach my plan before Mrs. Butler, a quick-moving woman, would call us to the table, when Mrs. Brad cleared her throat. She too, had something on her mind.
"Allistair,” she said, ”I hope you won’t take it amiss but I’d like you to leave sometime tomorrow.”
"Leave?” I repeated stupidly. "Leave?”
Her pudgy hand fluttered depreciatingly. "I don’t mean leave the Cove, but there’s other places you can board while you’re in these parts.”
"I don’t understand.”
A spot of color tinged her sallow pendulous cheeks. "Mrs. Butler can’t stay after tonight,” she replied primly, "and it wouldn’t look right, us being here alone. Folks’d talk for sure.”
Irritation and amusement battled in me. "Oh come now, Mrs. Brad! Surely ...”
"A widow has to be careful. I’ve always had a good name, I aim to keep it.”
"Of course I don’t wish to cause you embarrassment,” I assured her. Would she think her good name threatened if she accepted my offer, I wondered? Would Cove tradition forbid her taking aid from me? And how could I make her change her mind if she refused? Ignoring the question of my departure I tried to lead up to my own plan.
"Have you decided what you’ll do?”
"Yes, indeed, I have,” her reply was firm and prompt. "I’m going to board the teachers.”
I nodded. With Brad gone she’d see her way clear to do that.
"Of course,” she went on brightly, "that won’t be till September. But I can manage fine till then on my forty a month.”
"Your forty a month?” Had I been mistaken? Surely Brad had told me all his insurance had been withdrawn. Had he been wise enough to reserve this small annuity for her?
The spot of color deepened as she half-whispered behind her hand and cocking her head in the direction of the kitchen, meaning she didn’t want Mrs. Butler to hear, "The old age pension. That’s forty a month, you know. I’ll apply right away.”
"But you can’t get that till you’re seventy.” My glance went to the silver-washed nameplate on top of the bookcase which the undertaker had removed from the coffin before Brad’s body was taken to the church. Such a plate, I’d thought, served as identification should the grave be opened at a future date. At the Cove, on the contrary, it was kept as a grisly memento of the departed. I read the lettering again. BRADFORD JOHN DUNCAN AGED SIXTY-FIVE
She gave a sheepish smirk. "I’ll be seventy-three come July. I was near eight years older than Brad, though you’d never guess it, would you?”
"Seventy-three? You mean you might have been getting this money for three years?” I was incredulous. "Why, in heaven’s name, didn’t you?”
"Oh! I couldn’t. I’d never told Brad and he always thought we were the same age. He’d have been terribly mortified. I kept it from him right to the end.” The complacency in her voice made my flesh crawl. Vanity? Stupidity? Callous indifference? From what motive stemmed this crowning irony of Brad’s ill-starred, unlucky life? Female spiders, I’d read, devoured their mates. What manner of woman was she, this fat black widow sitting smug in her ugly little parlor?
She rustled her funereal silk to show that confidences were at an end and raised her voice.
"So you see, Allistair, I’m going to be all right.”
After a long moment I answered. "Yes,” I agreed heavily, "you’ll be ... all right.” ★