How I came to burn Sir John A
To relieve his conscience this Dominion Day, a historian not unknown as a humorist confesses to his boyhood crime against the ghost of our first prime minister
As the ninety-second birthday of Confederation approaches my conscience begins to trouble me again. So I've decided, while there is yet time, to confess the shameful lie of my life and tell who really lighted Sir John A. Macdonald on fire in his bed.
I lighted him on fire. This, of course, is not the popular version of the affair. A better man than 1 can hope to be confessed the crime and went to his grave as the incendiary. But it’s the true version. I have a charred exhibit on my mantel shelf to prove it.
The thing happened on a Sunday, in the year 1905, in the St. Lawrence town of Prescott, Ont., where I was visiting our old family home, then occupied by my three maiden aunts. They had gone to church that morning, escorted by Uncle Smedley.
After all he did for me in life’s first crisis, I’d like to claim Smedley as my true uncle but he was only a distant relative of the family — a brisk little terrier of a man. as I remember him, with a wisp of reddish hair plastered thinly over his skull and a rusty mustache waxed to fine points.
By his own account he had been “a homeless wanderer on the face of the earth” and “a broken soldier of the Queen, God bless her.” Somehow' he had turned up in Canada and found, in my aunts’ house, w'hat he called a “last bivouac.” The two most notable things Uncle Smedley brought with him were a small army pension and a big green parrot named General Kitchener that talked all day in army language.
Only Marie, the French-Canadian maid of all work, and I were left at home on that dreadful Sunday morning. For a boy just under five years old it w'as too good a chance to miss. I slipped away from Marie and crept upstairs to Uncle Smedley’s room. Its treasures of guns,fishing tackle and the green parrot required leisurely examination.
Besides, in this room — a fact impressed on me almost from the hour of my birth in the room across the hall — Sir John A. Macdonald had once slept after making a speech in Prescott. His overnight visit naturally was the highest memory, the supreme moment of our family life. Thence-
supreme forth we lived on it.
family life. Thencecontinued on page 31
continued from page 26
" 'Fire' I tried to shout, but the word came in a whisper. The stranger fust winked at me"
All visitors were taken to view the great man's bed, a massive slab of carved walnut. They were also allowed to view his portrait in oils and a plaster bust, about a foot high. Sir John’s personal gift to my late grandfather. Though Uncle Smedley was temporarily billeted there for more than two decades, this was forever Sir John's Room and a shiine.
Uncle Smedley treated Sir John's Room with scrupulous respect, swept it. polished its bed. beat its carpet every spring and professed a lifelong loyalty to the Conservative Party, w'hich he had discovered for the first time in his old age.
"Son.” he would say, fixing me with his hard blue soldier's eyes, “never forget. Stand firm by the Grand Old Man.” Sir John had been dead some fourteen years and Uncle Smedley had never seen him. Nevertheless, my first resolution in life was to stand firm by the Grand Old Man.
As soon as 1 entered Sir Johns Room everything seemed to happen automatically w'ithout any help from me.
I took one of Uncle Smedley’s pipes from the rack, filled it with tobacco from his jar and tried to light it with a match from the bedside table. The tobacco wouldn’t light. That was the beginning of the whole thing. If the tobacco had lighted l would merely have been sick and no harm done. As it wouldn't light I held a second match to the lace curtains by way, 1 suppose, of scientific experiment.
No third match was required. The curtains burned perfectly in one big flash.
After that my impressions are somewhat blurred. I remember seizing a box of Uncle Smedley’s collar buttons and shaking them at the curtains but they had no noticeable effect. I hauled some socks and shirts from a bureau drawer and threw them at the fire. They burned quite well. I also threw in a box of shot gun shells. Some of them popped off like firecrackers. General Kitchener, the green parrot, fluttered in his hanging cage and said: “Form fours.”
By now the flames w'ere moving slowly across the wall toward Sir John's portrait and, with great presence of mind, I managed to drag it down and hide it behind the wash stand. Uncle Smedley’s lessons had not been w'asted. I was standing firmly behind the Grand Old Man.
I must have been, for there came to me then one of those profound, shattering experiences unlikely to be repeated in any man’s life. Suddenly I became certain that a man was lying in the bed. He was an old man with shaggy hair, a red nose and deep, wrinkled eyes, and he was reading a newspaper and sipping some brown liquid from a glass.
“Fire!” I tried to shout. The word came in a whisper.
The old man said nothing but answered me with a big, knowing wink.
Now the fire oozed across the carpet and caught the bed clothes. They burned slowly with a lot of smoke.
"Fire!” I whispered again. The man smiled at me and lifted his glass in a silent toast. His newspaper flared like a torch but he didn't seem to mind.
"Fire!” I repeated.
The stranger spoke for the first time.
Don t worry, boy," he said. “1 can lick it as quick as hell can singe a feather.”
I recognized those words. Uncle Smedley had quoted them a hundred times. And when the stranger murmured, "A British subject I was born, a British sub-
ject I will die,” the truth seared me like a flame and 1 found my voice.
“Run, Sir John!” I screamed. "Run for your life! Fire, fire, it's no false alarm!"
“Don’t worry,” he said with another wink and a sip. “A mari usque ad mare."
I knew those words, too, from Uncle Smedley. though I wasn’t sure of their meaning. I w'as sure only that Sir John would be burned up if 1 didn’t get him out of that bed.
He smiled. I screamed. Kitchener
croaked: “Shoulder arms. Steady boys.” And at that moment the dropsical figure of Marie waddled through the door.
With her infallible grasp of the obvious she took in the situation at one glance. “Fire!” she cried and her scarlet harvest
moon of a face turned instantly to winter white. “Mother of God, it’s fire!”
She added some words in French, clutched my hand and the parrot’s cage, dragged me from the room and closed the door behind us.
As we tumbled down the stairs I kept shouting Sir John’s name but Marie paid no attention. She yanked me into the kitchen and collapsed into a rocking chair and spread her apron over her face. “Fire!” she muttered over and over again, and a lot more in French, while the parrot on the table continued to issue army commands. Occasionally Marie would fold me in her arms and call me “Mon petit brave” and "mon pauvre blessé.”
I saw the point after a while. Marie thought I had discovered the fire and heroically tried to put it out. I didn’t correct that deduction. It began to dawn on me that I had done a mighty brave thing upstairs. Thus was born the lie of my life.
Anyway, I was worried about something else. How was Sir John getting along in that bed of fire? On second thoughts, though, that didn’t worry me much. I hadn’t learned the word yet but I felt sure that Sir John must be incombustible.
Still, I dreaded the return of my aunts and watched the front door anxiously.
It was soon opened by Uncle Smedley. He wore his silk Sunday hat and frock coat. His reddish mustache was waxed to its sharpest Sunday points.
My three aunts filed through the doorway, their Sunday silks rustling—Aunt Olivia, the tall, lean one with the pile of black, patent-leather hair under a hat of feathers, Aunt Della, the short, stout one with the pile of yellow hair under a hat of ribbons, and in between them little Aunt Chris, the nervous, twittering one with the gold-rimmed glasses and no particular face or hat.
Aunt Olivia twitched her thin, blue nose and said: “I smell smoke.”
“So do I,“ said Aunt Della.
“And so do I,” said Aunt Chris, who always echoed the others in a tinkling voice like the sound of the glass prisms on the parlor lamp.
“Nonsense, my dears,” said Unde Smedley but then, dropping his cane, he ran up the stairs three steps at a time.
Aunt Olivia swept into the kitchen and, as always, took charge of everything.
"My land. Marie,” she said, “what’s happened?”
Marie removed a corner of the apron from her face and peered out.
“Fire," she groaned. “He tried to put it out. But no, it wouldn’t.”
Aunt Olivia observed me cowering in the corner.
“Heavenly day," she said, "the child’s on fire and she took a carving knife from the table and cut off the smouldering ends of my shoe laces.
“Company, halt!” said Kitchener.
“Fire." Marie kept repeating in a dull, choking voice. “Fire in Sir John’s Room.” “Ha!" said Aunt Olivia. "I knew it. Smedley smoking in bed again, eh? It was bound to happen. Mark my words."
Nobody marked her words as she flew into the hall where Aunt Della and Aunt Chris were watching Uncle Smedley run down the stairs. He carried Sir John's portrait, outstretched in his hands, as if it were hot.
"The house!” he howled. "It's on fire!”
”1 know that." said Aunt Olivia. "Well, don’t just stand there. Call the fire department."
"In Sir John's Room!” said Aunt Della. "Oh. what would he say?” said Aunt Della and began to whimper.
"Keep quiet, you ninnies," said Aunt Olivia. "Smedley, call the fire department.”
He was at the telephone already, turning the handle and addressing the mouthpiece as if he intended to bite it off.
“Send the engine right away!” I heard him bawl. “Where? Here, of course. And hurry.”
He turned from the telephone, threw his silk hat on the floor and glared at Aunt Olivia.
‘They’ll be late,” he said. “Damn Grit heelers, the whole pack of ’em.”
"Don’t swear, Smedley,” said Aunt Olivia.
“Oh, God!" Uncle Smedley said and ran upstairs again. I could hear him moving furniture about and hoped he’d got Sir John safely out of bed. Smoke puffed from the bedroom door.
Aunt Della and Aunt Chris had subsided on the hall settee with their lace Sunday handkerchiefs to their faces.
“Stop that sniveling,” said Aunt Olivia, "and save the silver."
“Yes,” said Aunt Della. “That’s it. The silver.”
Now I heard the fire bells and in a moment the red engine, four horses at the
gallop, clattered up the street, the volunteer firemen clinging to its sides.
Chief Ben Haverstock puffed through the front door. He had his big leather helmet on but was wearing his stiff white Sunday shirt. It made his spiked beard look very black and his plump cheeks very red.
"What’s goin’ on here?" he demanded.
“The house is on fire,” said Aunt Olivia. "You fool.”
"Ah, I thought as much,” said Haverstock, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “Be calm, Livy.”
"Be calm yourself,” said Aunt Olivia, “and get it out.”
"We ll get her out all right,” said the chief and rammed the helmet furtherdown on his head. “Here, boys! Hose and axes!”
It was wonderful. I thought, the way that squat bear of a man could command the fire department so competently when I had seen him every day cutting meat in his butcher shop and joking with the customers.
He started up the stairs, followed by his firemen, hose and axes, but collided with Uncle Smedley on the way down. One quick jerk of the chiefs elbow thrust Smedley aside and he rolled the rest of the way into the hall. When he reached the bottom l saw that he held the bust of Sir John in his arms. Haverstock had started to hack the door to Sir John’s
room with an axe, under the impression that it was locked.
Uncle Smedley got to his feet and examined the bust intently. Its base was blackened and a piece had been chipped off the edge of the left nostril.
“Ruined!” he said. “Look at his nose.” “Rubbish,” said Aunt Olivia, who was on her hands and knees with a cloth, wiping up the puddles from the hose. “Save the silver. His nose was too long anyway.”
That seemed to be a new idea to Uncle Smedley. He held the bust up to the light and grumbled: “By George, you might be right, Livy.”
“Save the silver, you idiot,” Aunt Olivia repeated but Unde Smedley didn’t hear her. He placed the bust carefully on the hall what-not, where the firemen would be sure to knock it over, and ran upstairs, colliding again with Haverstock. The chief’s face was grave.
“Livy,” he panted, “she don’t look good. Better get the furniture out.”
"Get it out yourself,” said Aunt Olivia, still mopping the puddles. “That’s what you’re paid for.”
“Never paid a cent and you know it,” he retorted with some heat. “Well, it’s your furniture. It’ll burn good, too.”
Aunt Chris fluttered from the dining room, a silver candlestick in one hand and the parrot cage in the other. Kitchener squirmed on his perch and growled: “About turn.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” said Aunt Chris, her voice reduced to a very small tinkle. “What would Sir John say to this?” “He’d say,” Haverstock bellowed, “shut your mouth and get the hell out of the way!”
They got the fire out at last, though the chief told Aunt Olivia it had been a mighty close thing. All she said by way of thanks was: “You needn't have ruined the carpet you booby.”
At supper that night my aunts maintained a depressing silence until Uncle Smedley broke the ice.
“I wouldn’t have believed,” he said in a small voice, “that it could happen. Hours afterwards, I mean.”
“And why not?” Aunt Olivia asked, rather grimly. “It was smouldering all the time in the mattress.”
“Can’t believe it,” Uncle Smedley insisted.
“Next you’ll tell us,” said Aunt Olivia in a voice of vinegar, “that Sir John started it himself.”
“He did once, too, said Uncle Smedley, chewing his mustache. “In a hotel room, in London. Set his own bed on fire. With a cigar.”
“A likely story,” Aunt Olivia sniffed. “The idea!” said Aunt Della. “Disgusting,” Aunt Chris tinkled.
”1 tell you I read it in the paper.” said Uncle Smedley, not very convincingly.
“What paper, I'd 'ike to know?” asked Aunt Olivia, her blue nose twitching.
“To tell the truth it was the Globe,” Uncle Smedley admitted.
“Oh, the Globe!” said Aunt Olivia with another sniff. That Liberal rag.”
"The idea!” said Aunt Della.
"Perfectly disgusting." said Aunt Chris. “Why. when the child opened the door, said Aunt Olivia, “the flames were all over the room. Thanks to you. he almost burned to death.”
There was my moment of test but I didn’t meet it. Not that I didn't try. I got to the point of saying: “Aunt Livy,
I • ■ - ” but she cut me short.
“Silence, child,” she said. "Little boys should be seen and not heard.”
That, may God forgive me, was enough to throttle my frail impulse of honor.
"All right,” said Uncle Smedley. “I’ll pay the damage.”
“Indeed?” said Aunt Olivia. "And how, pray, may I ask?”
“I’ll commute my pension.”
“You will not!”
She spoke sharply but. young as I was,
I could see that she had been moved by my uncle’s reckless offer.
In the next few weeks Sir John’s Room was re-done, the ceiling plastered, the walls papered, the walnut bed scraped and varnished. The shrine ’ >oked exactly as before, except for the missing portrait. Some fireman had put his gum boot through it. Uncle Smedley fixed that. too. by hiring Ezra Pocock, the best house painter in town, to paint a reproduction. Since Ezra’s experience as an artist had been confined to imaginary murals of the Alps and five-masted schooners in Buttle’s tobacco store, the new portrait left something to be desired.
“His nose,” Uncle Smedley admitted when he brought the canvas home, “couldn’t have been that red.”
Harold Woodruff, the plasterer, tried to disguise the nick in Sir John s other nose of plaster but only added a little lump like a wart. He couldn’t get the black smudge off the base.
In the excitement of the fire and the repairs I had quite lost track of Sir John but afterwards I remembered him with sudden remorse. The more I thought about that burning bed the more my conscience troubled me until, finding Aunt Olivia alone in the kitchen one day, I buried my head in her apron and sobbed out the truth — the pipe, the tobacco, the second match.
"There, there, child,” Aunt Olivia said and wiped my tears with the apron. ' It s fine and brave, I must say, for you to take the blame but Uncle Smedley lighted it. No doubt about that.”
Then, with a curious glint in her eye she said: “And don’t you ever tell him different, mind! He’s got to learn not to smoke in bed or he’ll be the death o. us.
The last morsel of truth came out in a rush.
“Sir John,” I blubbered, “was in the bed.”
“Eh? What’s that? Oh, I see. Why yes, of course he was,” said Aunt Olivia. “But don't you ever tell a soul. Keep it a secret just between us two. There’s a good boy.” The horrid fear which had long gripped me could not be contained.
“Did Sir John,” I whispered, “burn up?”
“Burn up?” said Aunt Olivia. “Land sakes, no. Sir John didn't burn up, you may be sure. I dare say,” she added after a thoughtful pause, “he just climbed out of the window and slid down the roof of the verandah. I used to go that way sometimes when I was a girl.”
Her explanation cleared up everything. My conscience freed by confession and my mouth full of cookies, I went off with Uncle Smedley to fish for bass in the river. And naturally, in my mood of exaltation, I forgot my pledge to Aunt Olivia and blurted the truth all over again, with another bout of tears.
Uncle Smedley dropped his oars and fixed me with a look I didn't understand until years later. At last he said: “No! You mustn’t have a thing like that on your mind, boy. Twouldn’t be healthy. Pshaw, it was all my fault. Why, I’ve lit more mattresses than you could shake a stick at, all over the Empire. Common thing in the army.”
He leaned over and patted my knee.
You’re a real soldier all the same,” he said. “Just like Sir John. He was always taking the blame for somebody else. But don t you ever say anything to your aunts. There’re some things women can’t understand. Give me your word like a man.”
I gave him my word, with a big gulp, and added that Sir John himself had been in the burning bed.
At that Uncle Smedley looked startled for a moment but a queer little smile spread slowly under the pointed mustache.
“Why sure,” he said, “Sir John was there. The old boy got around all right. Yes, indeed! Sir John is everywhere.” He heaved a deep sigh and muttered as if to himself: “But I wish it hadn’t happened in his room.”
Then to me: "Now we’ll have ourselves
a lark to celebrate the Grand Old Man.”
Picking up the oars, he headed for the American side of the river and all the way he told me stories about Confederation and explained at length why Canada must have high tariffs to keep out cheap Yankee goods, just as Sir John had said.
At Ogdensburg he bought me a dandy little steam engine that really ran and a box of cigars for himself. We smuggled them back across the river, landing a mile upstream from Prescott to avoid the customs inspector.
When we reached the gate of my aunts’
house Uncle Smedley gripped me by the arm and hissed in my ear: “Remember your promise. Not a word.”
I’ve kept the promise for more than half a century, though Uncle Smedley. my aunts, Marie and the others are long gone and forgotten. That plaster bust looks down from my mantel shelf today at the other side of the nation, the wart on the nose, the smudge of fire on the base. It assures me that I’d been right from the beginning, in essentials anyway As historians have finally discovered, Sir John was incombustible. ★