It must have been in 1908 that Jack and Sheila Hannison came to Milltown “looking for a place to settle.” They created quite a stir in our quiet little lumber town, where no settlers had come since the days of the pioneers. The tide of immigration–in full flow in those spacious pre-war days–ignored the Atlantic provinces as if they did not exist, seeking the prairies and the fabulous “wide open spaces,” the Golden West of novels and magazines. Jack Hannison was then about twenty three, a slim good-looking fellow with a neat blond moustache. There was a touch of ice about him, reflected in his eyes, grey like the colour of river ice that has been darkened by a spring sun . He was dressed in what some London outfitter considered the proper thing for Canada, a quaint garb more suitable to Greenland than the kindly climate of southern Nova Scotia, and his trunks were packed with other properties equally incongruous. With his strange clothes, his accent, his impersonal smile and aloof manner he was an object of Pine County interest in his own right. In combination with Sheila he was a sensation. How shall I describe Sheila Hannison? It is more than twenty six years since she went away from Nine Mile House for ever, but her loveliness, the rich lilt of her laughter, the instinctive grace of her every movement and gesture, her gay courage that was like a flame within, these are still an ache in the heart. She was taller than jack and she wore her dark hair curling about her shoulders in what is nowadays called the “page-boy bob”. It was very unusual in those days of knobs and stiff piled pompadours. The nostils flared away from the tilt of her nose in a way that suggested a keen and sensitive animal sniffing the savour of life and her lips, long and full and wide, pouted a little as if she were eager to taste as well. Her eyes were dark and enormous, with a perceptible cast in the loft, which far from detracting from her looks was oddly appealing. The skin on the lower lids formed long sacs with a vague bluish gleam. I was in love with her–What callow youth in Milltown was not?
“Squire” Baring took them into his rambling Dutch-colonial house on the slope overlooking the river, for there was no hotel in Milltown in those days, and tried to talk them out of their magnificent ideas. They wanted “a section of forest land” where they could “chop out” a farm, with “a bit of a stream” for preference, and it had to be “well removed” from the settlement. There were good farms for sale in the northern part of Pine County, Baring told them. Here in the southern district the land was rocky with intervals of clay bottom where water settled and swamps flourished, and the uplands were covered with a dense growth of pine, hemlock, oak, beech and birch, and black spruce, red maple and hackmatack grew around the bogs. It was, he told them bluntly, “the devil’s own job to clear, and hell to cultivate.” He wasted his breath, of course. Jack Hannison’s firm mouth grew tighter the longer Baring argued, and at last, inspired perhaps by remembered talk of misfits returning to England, he accused the “Squire” of “not wanting strangers here.” Old Baring bristled, for hospitality is not more sacred in the Arabian desert than in Pine County; and the quiet accusation, uttered in an accent which Baring dimly associated with “dudes,” laid a foundation for the Milltown belief that Hannison was “one of those who-are-you-damn-you Englishmen.”
Sheila melted the old man’s uprush of anger with one of her quick smiles, and Baring leaned back in his great leather morris-chair, staring out over the houses clustered about the saw-mills on the river bank, and said, “Strangers are always welcome here, mister. I’m just tryin’ to save you some of the misery that my own ancestors chose for themselves. They came from New England to Nova Scotia in 1760, not long after the Acadians had been driven out. They might have gone up Fundy Bay an’ taken up some of the rich dyke’lands left empty by the Acadians–they might have gone ‘most anywhere, same as you–but here they came. They were towns-folk lookin’ for a better way of life somewhere handy to the seaboard, for they didn’t fancy the inland wilderness. They didn’t know any more about farmin’ than I reckon you know, and for two generations they broke their hearts and backs tryin’ to till this sour rocky land of ours. Look at the stone walls they built around these little fields with the rubble they dragged aside! Four foot thick an’ shoulder high, ton upon ton of it, an’ a drop of sweat in every ounce. An’ the women–go down to the old buryin’ ground, mister, an’ take a look at the dates on the tombstones. Hardly a woman got past the age of forty–most of ’em died off in the twenties an’ thirties, workin’ ’emselves to death. That’s what I’m comin’ at, mister. You’re a man that uses plain talk an’ I’ll give you a plain answer. If you want to go in these woods an’ break your back tryin’ to make a farm out o’ land that God meant for growin’ timber–that’s your own funeral an’ you can do your own mournin’. But your wife –”
Hannison was about to say something hot at this point but Sheila cut in swiftly with some disarming remark and the upshot of the whole matter was that they bought a section of timber land “well removed” from Milltown on the old post road to Fort Royal. They built their home near the nine-mile mark on the post road, a crude Roman numeral chiseled in a roadside boulder by pioneers blazing a trail to the northern district. Apparently Hannison had money, for he hired carpenters, masons and plasterers in Milltown and set about building the place which every traveller came to know as Nine Mile House. It was not a large house by any means, perhaps thirty feet by twenty five on the ground floor, rising to a half story upstairs, with little dormers peering from the steep shingled roof. Jack Hannison had set his heart on some sort of English cottage, but the problem of expressing a brick-and-stone idea in terms of wood and the further difficulty of conveying his notions to the Milltown carpenters, who were used to the simple colonial architecture, finally persuaded him to fall in with Sheila and a house in the style of the country. The sills were hewn from logs of red pine, cut near the site, but the white pine beams, groove and tongue sheathing, clapboards, the hemlock joists, the birch flooring and the spruce shingles were hauled in ox-teams from the saw-mills at Milltown. With its great central chimney, its white painted clapboards, its windows flanked with ornamental green shutters, its little portico over the front door, Nine Mile House was to all outward appearance a dwelling such as you might see anywhere in Pine County. Inside there were differences. The dining room, for instance was panelled in natural pine, a thing unheard of at that time. There was a room containing a built-in tin bath, at which the Milltown workmen marvelled. As far as I know it was the second permanent bathroom in the Milltown district. It seems absurd to think that only thirty years ago the hip-bath on the bedroom floor or a wash-tub in the kitchen constituted almost the sole bathing facilities of urban as well as rural Pine County. The world does move.
There were fireplaces in two bedrooms and another huge oak-mantelled cave in the big living room. The carpenters told him that the fireplaces would not heat the place in zero weather, that he would have to install stoves, and then the yawning fireplaces must be covered to prevent the escape of precious heat. But he was obdurate, and those who were privileged afterwards to sit before that mighty living-room fire, blazing with four foot maple and beech logs, were pleased to admit that in winter, it was a “darned sight more cheerful than a Franklin, and pretty nigh warm as a stove.” The kitchen occupied the back of Nine Mile House, with great windows facing south and west, so that the room in which Sheila spent much of her day would get a maximum of sunshine. It was a pleasant place, even in winter when the sun describing its low arc in the southern sky filled the room with light and even a sense of warmth. I have stood in the kitchen of Nine Mile House upon a day in February when the thermometer shrank under the zero mark, and felt the flush of the afternoon sun on my face as if it were Spring. But I was a boy then and in love with Sheila Hannison and perhaps it was the light and glow that she herself diffused. I can see her now, holding forth some new triumph of cookery in a spoon or upon a fork for our taste, and watching us with enormous brown eyes as if her life’s happiness depended on the verdict.
The house was about seventy five yards removed from the westerly side of the post-road. By this you may gauge Jack Hannison’s aloofness, for traffic on the road was limited to the teamsters hauling goods to the northern district merchants from Millton, a dozen wagons a week perhaps, and in winter the sleds of a few lumbermen. Later he set out an apple orchard between the house and the road, but that was after a breaking-up bee convinced Jack Hannison that the world of men was still at his door. Thirty years ago the bee was a thriving institution in Pine County, an inheritance from the pioneers. There were various bees. When a young couple started “on their own” there was a raising bee, attended by men women and children from miles of countryside. The men brought tools–every man his own carpenter–and the necessary lumber on ox-wagons, and there was a day of furious labour. A small house might be put up in a single bee, or “raised” to a point where the young husband could finish off according to his fancy. In the evening there would be singing and dancing–games only in the Hard-shell Baptist sections–and a great feast of home-made wine and pastry. If a man fell sick in spring-time there was a ploughin bee or a planting bee; and in the Fall he would awaken one morning to find a cordwood bee in full blast outside, and see a winter’s supply of fuel cut, sawn and piled in his wood-shed before dark.
A few mornings after Nine Mile House received its gleaming coat of white paint, with a light and cheerful green on doors, window-frames and shutters, there was a hubbub on the post-road and the Hannisons beheld a bee approaching their domain. The country folk were a bit shy of these exotic strangers but the ancient custom was not lightly to be set aside. Jack Hannison came out on his doorstep as the cavelcade pulled up beside the house and asked curtly, “What’s this, may I ask?”
The clamour subsided. Someone said “breakin’-up bee” in the hush. He regarded them with an amazed anger, as if he found himself in the presence of slightly demented burglars. He did not know what to say. They explained; awkwardly, even defensively. When dimly he understood, Hannison was disposed to order them off, for he clearly regarded the whole thing as an impertinence; but as usual it was Sheila whose intuition and disarming smile melted the rising resentment of both husband and visitors.
“Oh Jack, how kind!” Her voice had that music in it. She seized his arm and swept him down the steps amongst them crying, “How nice to find so many friends, so soon.” Shelia was a born politician. She shook hands, memorized names and faces, patted children, with just the right glow for the women and just the right impersonal little smile for the men, and insisted the women should come in and see every part of Nine Mile House while their men laboured outside.
Jack Hannison took his axe and fell to with the rest, working with the energy of a man possessed, as if to show that he was quite capable of taking care of himself. He was capable enough physically. When you watched Jack Hannison in movement you watched an athlete and knew it. But after a time he was glad to take example from the Pine County men, whose unhurried axe-strokes fell so surely and cleanly, with rhythm of swing and economy of effort. “Squire” Baring was there with his three sturdy sons and two yoke of oxen. Hannison went over and reminded him pleasantly of his statement about the impossibilty of farming in the Pine County woods. Baring’s kindly smile stirred his broad face. “Sure. We break up land hereabouts for garden plots an’ pastures. Always have. But not for real farmin’, son. ‘Course, mebbe we’ve got the wrong slant on this thing. Mebbe you can show us somethin’. Man’s never too old to learn; an’ if the lumber business don’t pick up soon we’ll all be growing cabbages for a livin’. But right now, son, I still think you’re workin’ up grief for yourself.” He nodded towards the gleaming paint of Nine Mile House. “You seem to have a bit o’ capital, son, an’ it’s not too late to change your mind. You’ve got a nice lot o’ timber here–some good pine, and a fine stand o’ hemlock. There’s a lake not more than a mile back o’ your house, about three miles long an’ a mile wide. It flows to the river through a good deep brook. That means you’ve got first-rate lay-out for a small lumberman. There’s good timber all around the lake. I know because I’ve looked it over. If I was you, son, I’d buy up the timber between Eight Mile an’ Ten Mile, an’ get options on the rest, all the way round the lake within good haulin’ distance. Cut an’ peel your hemlock in summer, pine in the Fall. Soon as snow comes, hire a few ox-teams an’ start sleddin’ down to the lake ice. A winter’s work at that, what with swampin’ an’ loadin’. Then in spring float your stuff down the brook to the river–sell it to some feller that’s bringin’ a drive down to the mills–I’ll take it, if you like. After you’ve got the hang of the thing, an’ a few good men in your pay, branch out more; cut enough for a decent drive an’ bring it down to Milltown, get it sawn on a share basis an’–why, son, I’ve pretty nigh got you into the lumber business already.”
Afterwards, of course, we knew that Jack Hannison had sunk his money in Nine Mile House, bitterly resolved that Sheila should have a decent habitation in the wilds, but at the time he sounded very curt and superior.
“‘Fraid you’re off the mark, Baring. I might cut a few logs in winter when there’s nothing else to do, but as I said before, I’m a farmer and I know what I’m doing.”
The breaking-up bee performed great labours in the wilderness. At dark there was a decent clearing about the house for a hundred yards, shorn of trees and undergrowth, the soil well grubbed. But there was also an appalling display of Pine County geology, great boulders of granite and whinstone boldly naked in the red glare of burning stumps and slash, too big for oxen to remove. They were ominous to the experienced eye, tombstones for the hopes that Jack Hannison was to bury there. Still Hannison had a fine pile of young hardwood trunks lying beside the back door for fuel, and a number of saw-logs at the post road ready for hauling to the mill, and there was a general chorus of satisfaction at the day’s work.
A wash-boiler of tea steamed gently in Sheila’s kitchen, and the women opened their baskets and began to pass food to the men clustering about the doors. “Come in, men, do” Sheila said. They peeped at the interior with frank curiosity. One or two walked in delicately; the rest said their boots were muddy and their hands mighty dirty, thank you ma’am, and they’d make out all right outside. So they ate squatting against the house in the spring dusk, while the horses swished and stamped at their tethers in the edge of the new clearing and the ox bells rang a discordant carillon beside the wagons. After supper somebody produced a fiddle and at Sheila’s urging a large self-possessed woman tried to organize a square dance in the big living room; but the men would not come in and a few shy girls made an attempt alone without “getting things started”. Sheila flitted through the crowd like the bright friendly bird she was, sparkling, cajoling, rallying, but the atmosphere was heavy with constraint. It was Jack Hannison’s fault. There was something about him that suggested a gentleman confronted with well-meaning boors. It was just an unbending something that he could not help, a withdrawn quality, an aloofness bred in his bones. The party came to a close very soon after the empty dishes were packed away in the baskets. Men hitched up their horses and oxen, women and children climbed in the wagons, and the breaking-up bee vanished in the darkness towards Milltown with a clop-clop of hooves and the receding jangle of ox bells. Looking back over thirty mellowing years I wonder if visitors or visited sighed with the greater relief.
The report of the breaking-up bee was brief and to the point. This fellow Hannison was a stiff-neck, they said; but his wife was real nice, and she could play the piano and sing better than anybody in Pine County. Some of us, sons and daughters of Milltown merchants and small mill-owners, fell into the pleasant habit of driving out the post road to Nine Mile House on summer afternoons and evenings, and a fine Sunday was sure to see a row of horses hitched to the rail fence and a park of dusty buggies about the house. Sheila Hannison played and sang lively little songs, most of them Gilbert and Sullivan, though we did not know it then, and we taught her lumberjack songs and shouted them in chorus. I remember an evening when she slipped away for a few minutes and came back wearing Hannison’s working kit, stained denim overalls, mackinaw shirt, high laced boots and a battered felt hat, and struck an attitude, brandishing an axe and singing “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock” in brilliant parody of the mournful lumber camp troubadours. We joined in–Sally Blantyre, Bill Kerr, blond Madge Connor, Harry and Mac Baring, demure little Gaby Ross–a dozen of us, putting on long soulful faces and drawling out the notes until we all collapsed with laughter. All but Jack Hannison, who stood at the window regarding sourly his own reflection in the black glass. Our laughter died. Sheila studied his disapproving shoulders with a slow sidelong glance and then fled to put off the offensive raiment. I never knew what quirk of the past or the moment lit that particular fire in Jack Hannison. Later we understood many things, but that incident remains unsolved, a thing apart.
It could not have been a dislike for seeing his wife performing for others’ amusement for her vivacious gifts were soon enlisted for concerts put on in Milltown by local talent and Jack Hannison usually played her accompaniments. She was a success from the first, always greeted with a storm of applause and obliged to give encore after encore. She offered to dance for one affair and the offer was accepted with alacrity by all but her husband. Hannison’s small neat face froze into a blank mask, familiar enough, but for once Sheila seemed not to notice it. She did a spirited Spanish thing with the fire and grace that was hers alone. It was new to Milltown concerts, where dancing moved in the shadow of a puritan conscience inherited from the pioneers, and the younger folk were in raptures; but Aunt Sarah Grindling, the fearsome spinster who was the bony figurehead of public opinion, pronounced loudly and acidly, “A bit free with her laigs, if you ask me,” and Sheila’s performance was Officially damned. Jack Hannison, returning unobtrusively from the piano to his seat, over heard Aunt Sarah. What passed between him and his wife on the long ride home I do not know, but the Hannisons apparently accepted Sarah’s verdict as excommunication, and from that time the village hall saw no more of the master and mistress of Nine Mile House. Aunt Sarah passed to her reward long since. She must be a nuisance to the other saints.
During the first winter we kept up our visits to Nine Mile House as often as snowstorms permitted, whipping along behind the horses in little two-seated cutters, with the harness bells filling the silence of the woods, and the runners creaking on the snow and the white road sliding past. And sometimes there was a sleigh drive of the old-fashioned kind, the long sled boxes piled with straw and fifteen or twenty youngsters wedged in with blankets and buffalo robes and two or three pairs of horses in the harness, whips cracking, bells tinkling, voices chanting sleigh songs, and a ribbon of sky frosty with stars flowing overhead like an inverted river in the dark canyon of pine and hemlock. Then the noisy arrival at Nine Mile House, with Jack and Sheila framed in the yellow light of the doorway, and the invasion of red cheeks and flashing teeth; caps, mittens, mackinaws, furs, hurled right and left, overshoes in a slowly dripping pyramid in the hall; shouts and songs, and the table covered with hot dishes of baked beans–Sheila cooked them lumber camp style in great earthenware crocks with chunks of fat pork and a generous dash of molasses–and the smell of coffee and–but why go on? I was nineteen then, and Jack Hannison twenty four, and Sheila at twenty six, the oldest and youngest of us all. All that fizzing youth is gone, like Nine Mile House and the curious idyll that passed within its walls, and the living hearts are scattered from Halifax to the Rockies after the fashion of our roving Nova Scotia folk: Bill Kerr and Harry Baring are quiet under the Norway maples in the shadow of Vimy monument, Lance Porter vanished in a shell explosion under the old ramparts at Ypres, and angelic Harvey Delhanty who sang in the Milltown choir was killed in a paltry row with Japanese soldiers on Kepeck Hill in Vladivostock. The cutters are mouldering and their iron runners rusting in lofts and corners of Milltown barns, for the post road is a motor highway now, kept open in winter with tractor-driven ploughs, and the old days are drowned in the stink of gasolene. Time, with its disillusion, its cold memories and empty longings, this was the spectre that hung over us and Nine Mile House.
In the three years that followed, the Hannisons gradually acquired a dossier in Milltown’s verbal Who’s-Who. Some of it was pure guessing; some, I know now, was accurate enough, though how the knowledge came to Milltown is one of those mysteries of country towns. Jack Hannison, it said positively, was the younger son of a well-to-do English family. Sheila was an actress. They had eloped, and Jack’s family had written him off the books. An old story, and simple enough. There were various details. Some were absurd, and the rest you can fill in for yourself. One thing was certain. Jack Hannison regarded his home and family with a fanatic hatred. He never spoke of home, that word which is ever on the Englishman’s lips; and if in the course of talk there was mention of England or the English he dismissed them tersely with “over there” and “those people.” The postmaster knew that Sheila sometimes wrote to England, and that letters came for her with English postmarks; but Hannison never sent nor received so much as a postcard.
He persisted doggedly with his “farm,” and hired Dixie Willis to do odd jobs about the place. Dixie was an old broken-down wanderer returned to roost at last, a Milltown character, full of tales of the sea, and General Robert E. Lee, and petty trading adventures in Mexico and Honduras. People scoffed at Hannison’s choice of a hired man, though I saw Sheila’s warm hand in it. Jack could not afford much in the way of wages, but he needed help of whatever sort. Dixie was grateful for tobacco money and his meals and a good roof over his head. In the second summer they raised a fair crop of potatoes and Indian corn, and at Dixie’s urging harvested wild hay in the swamp meadows near the lake. You will have an idea of Jack Hannison’s ignorance of Canada when I tell you he intended raising wheat and gave up the notion only when he found with astonihsment that there was not a flour mill within a hundred miles. Wheat–in the Nova Scotia woods! And his blind optimism took your breath away, for wheat is a business requiring wide acres for success, and there he was at Nine Mile, hewing away at the wilderness with his puny axe. People laughed at him of course, and then felt sorry for him, remembering old family tales of struggle under the same delusion; but as he became more and more of a recluse the interest dwindled. Old Dixie drove the wagon into Milltown every Saturday afternoon for mail and supplies, but he was close-mouthed about Nine Mile affairs, and news was confined to the few of us who still called to see Sheila’s smile and endured Hannison’s coldness for the sake of it. He knew this and resented it, I am sure of that. Gradually his frigid courtesy chilled the welcome that had sparkled so brightly in the first two years, and by the winter of 1911, we had ceased to drive out the post road altogether. Our old pre-Hannison concerns resumed their former interest. When we drove it was down the river to Rockport, where there were moving pictures three nights a week and frequent dances. Teamsters sometimes brought word of seeing Sheila about the house and yard, but little was ever seen of Hannison except the smoke of his clearing-fires in the bush.
Once, in September, a pair of moose-hunters, Indians, came into Milltown with a strange tale of a “witch” frolicking in the waters of Nine Mile Lake. Their description was vague, for the witch fled into the woods at sight of them, and for their part, they plied their canoe paddles in the opposite direction praying Holy Mother Mary (and for good measure Glooskap and other ancient gods) to see them safely down the brook. Aunt Sarah Grindling cornered wooden-faced Joe Penaul in Porter’s General Store one day and wormed the scant details out of him. “Witch!” she said. “It’s that stage woman at Nine Mile. Swimmin’ in her shirt! A fine how-d’ye-do, I must say.” Probably it was true. I cannot imagine Sheila Hannison in a pre-war bathing suit. She had too keen a sense of the ridiculous. The lake was hidden in thick forest a mile from the road and I suppose she had not thought of hunters coming up the brook from the river. I can fancy her peeping at them from the security of the alders, and her glee at their frantic retreat. But the incident set the seal of Aunt Sarah Grindling’s disapproval upon the mistress of Nine Mile House. From that time Sheila Hannison was an “abandoned woman” in truth, and Aunt Sarah did not have to wait very long to see her verdict sustained in every particular.
The spring of 1912 was late, but when the warm rains came at last they made a thorough job of breaking up the winter. The snow and ice disappeared in a flood that turned the brooks and rivers bank full, and the frost came out of the dirt roads in one sustained eruption. For two weeks they were simply channels of fluid mud. When they were at their worst a small theatrical troupe came to Milltown, advertising “Charlie’s Aunt” in gaudy posters. I always felt sorry for those strolling players who left the beaten circuit to stage their brave little shows in the lumber and fishing towns. They were third-rate companies at best, and even in that far-away era and that out-of-the-way place they faced an audience whose taste was made critical by the cinematograph. Too, they usually chose the spring time in a hope that people bored with long months of winter imprisonment would flock to see their show. The results were frequently disappointing, and the village hall with its great rusty stove in the centre of the floor and no heat at all back-stage was a frigid place in which to face a scanty audience. The players always went through their parts with a certain air of defiance, as much as to say, “The feeling’s mutual, damn you,” and went away calling loudly for strong drinks.
On the night of “Charlie’s Aunt” however the hall was full, and just before the tattered curtain went up Jack and Sheila Hannison came in. They were spattered with mud in spite of the buggy’s leather dash-board, and they had to take a pair of rickety chairs well up towards the front. “Charlie’s Aunt” found favour. Laughter filled the hall, and the players taking courage went through the merry farce with unusual spirit. The posters announced them “straight from Drury Lane,” which was open to doubt, but their accents were English enough and I was not surprised, when the curtain came down on the last act, to see Sheila Hannison mounting the stage by the little side steps and disappearing behind the ragged daub of Mount Blomidon. Hannison followed her slowly and with obvious distaste. I waited in the empty hall, filled with a sudden hunger for Sheila’s smile. I had not seen her in six months. I stood in the empty village hall for a long time, hearing the muddled echo of lively converstaion back stage, and then I was aware of Jack Hannison staring at me gloomily from the shadow of the wing door. He had followed her no farther than that. The great round-bellied stove, cooling for lack of fuel, made little cracking noises, a chilly sound. I turned up my collar and went out of the hall and out of Sheila Hannison’s life.
Two or three days after that happy-go-lucky troupe vanished into the outer world it was whispered in Milltown that “the dancing woman” from Nine Mile House had run away with Charlie’s Aunt. Elmer Ternholm, that gossipy man-who-should-have-beena-woman, told me, and I kicked him faithfully and told him to wash out his mouth with a good strong brand of soap. But it was true. Old Dixie came in for supplies the next Saturday. Aunt Sarah Grindling tried to get something out of him but had to give up in disgust, and on his way out of the village Dixie saw me and pulled up the horse quickly. He leaned over and spoke from the side of his old slack mouth. “She’s gone,” he said, and whipped up the horse again. Jack Hannison made no attempt to follow her. It would have been hopeless in any case, for it was known that the troupe were heading for the United States, and a third-rate theatrical company was a very small needle indeed in that haystack of one-night stands. I thought once or twice of driving out to Nine Mile House to offer my sympathy, or rather to share Jack Hannison’s misery, but I shrank from the prospect of his cold grey stare. In all probability he would have said it was none of my business, and he would have been quite right.
Two years later the war came and our petty current of local affairs was lost in a tide of great events. Before it was over the boys who had known Nine Mile House were scattered from Ypres to Siberia. A few who belonged to the militia went overseas in the Fall of ’14 with the first contingent, but there was a general belief that the whole thing would be over in a few months and there was no rush to enlist until the next spring when the news from Ypres shocked us like cold water. By the summer of 1916, one alone, the owner of Nine Mile House, stayed at home. We were not surprised, for we remembered his hatred of England and the English. Those who saw him wrote that he was a wreck of a man, working himself to death in his timber clearing and refusing any contact with the world, and people who had a word or two with him in the way of business said that he spoke through his teeth, very short and to the point, as if he grudged the time and breath involved. Then, abruptly, in the late summer of ’16 he packed up a few belongings and left, telling old Dixie to sell the furniture and keep the money for his wages.
“What about Nine Mile House?” old Dixie said, wondering about the taxes.
“The house,” said Hannison,” can go to hell, Dixie, for all of me.” And that was the last Pine County saw of him.
It was queer how much we talked of “home” when we were overseas and how little it satisfied us when we came back to it. There was a restlessness that took several years to work off, and in the meantime the country was over run with men wandering up and down, full of vague talk about getting out of the old rut and striking out at something with a future. It was summed up in the song that came from Tin Pan Alley about this time and swept the country–
“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
Now that they’ve seen Paree?”
For my part I had no wish to see Milltown, and when in the streets of Halifax I met Bob Nash, just out of the Air Force and bursting with enthusiasm about forestry in British Columbia, I decided on the spot. British Columbia it was. I had to learn forestry all over again, of course, for trees, rivers, mountains–everything there was on a scale beyond Atlantic measurement, but it was strange and interesting, sometimes exciting, and just what I needed. There were transfers and promotions and changes from employer to employer. There was hard work always. And sometimes there were girls, tall willowy girls for choice, with humourous brown eyes and a knack of jolly little songs. There came a chance to launch out for myself, and then increasing problems that pushed me farther and farther away from the trees and deeper into an office chair. The years went by. You know how they go. I kept in touch with Milltown all this time by letter and by a subscription to the Pine County Courier, and across the width of a continent I watched the decline and fall of Nine Mile House.
Old Dixie held the fort until some time in 1922, selling the furniture in Milltown bit by bit for taxes, and living God knows how. Then one day the strength went out of him and some teamsters found him waving feebly from the doorway. That incredible old man had lived in the barn for six years, keeping the empty house spotless for the Hannisons’ return. To his dying day he belived they would come back. Mac Baring was there when they took him away to the sick ward at the County Poor Farm, and saw the old man drive off with his personal trinkets in a handkerchief and a little rocking chair that belonged to Sheila Hannison tied on the back of the buggy. He had saved that from the tax sales and would not be parted from it. “The saddest thing,” Mac wrote, “I ever saw in my life.”
Mac Baring and some others boarded up the doors and windows and fastened a plank across the barn door, but they knew it was labour wasted. No barriers could keep out the damp and frost and the rot that comes in their wake. There had been six unheated winters, and already the hardwood floors had begun to heave, the paper to leave the walls, and the pine panelling of the dining room was warped beyond hope. The house was doomed. By 1926, when the Sherriff went redundantly through the form of seizing it for outstanding taxes, the roof leaked in a dozen places and the floors were like a relief map of the county complete with hills, valleys, streams and lakes. It was offered for sale, but who would buy a derelict house at Nine Mile? Hunters and hoboes began to use it for shelter, tearing boards off the barn for kindling, until the structure collapsed in an autumn storm. The county authorities sent a man out to board up the house again, and he found windows broken, plaster lying in heaps on the corrugated floors, and a porcupine den in the kitchen. And when the timber at Nine Mile Lake was logged by Black River men and other gentiles, the doors and window sashes vanished one by one and turned up in various camps, and so it went. There was nothing unusual about it after all. An abandoned house in the woods.
In 1928, too late, the human depredations were checked in a strange way. Poor-house visitors had told poor Dixie Willis something of the destruction, and one day the old man got permission to go to Milltown in the supply wagon. He was eighty three, a thin dried stick of a man, but he compelled the driver to take the long way round, past Nine Mile House, and went weeping through the shattered rooms, and on the bare white plaster over the great fireplace he wrote with a stub of lumber-crayon, “The Peple who distroyd this House will some day Come to Want.”
When I went there last year the sprawling blue letters were still distinct, like a curse in that melancholy place. The economy and power of the words impressed me, like something out of one of the more vindictive psalms, as if some brooding spirit of the house had guided the old man’s hand. It had been potent, too. There were no recent signs of human presence in that damp and silent wreck. Old signs were not wanting. The hardwood flooring was gone, torn up and burned, I suppose, and the hemlock boards of the under-floor rotten to the danger point. The plaster was nearly all down, the laths wrenched off for firewood. There were no doors, no windows. The gaping frames stared out of the drunken walls like sightless eyes. The stairs had collapsed. I could only guess at the ruin upstairs. The living room fireplace was deep in the caked ashes left by hunters and wanderers. A blackened little billy-can stood on the mantel. The corners were sodden heaps of drifted leaves. Soon, when the frosts came, there would be another layer. A depressing smell of wood rot hung in the rooms. Squirrels skittered over the sagging floor above my head, and a fitful wind came out of the woods and rattled the loose clapboards outside like castanets.
It was late September. On the edge of the clearing the maples were a flame in the sunshine. The apples in Jack Hannison’s pitiful orchard were dropping from the trees. The ground was littered with bruised fruit, and I knew the deer would come out of the woods at dusk to hold feast. Behind the house, stretching back towards the lake hidden in the pines, the fields were shaggy with uncut grass, and wire birch were springing up, and thick bunches of alder bush. The rail fence mouldering on the ground no longer separated the sown from the wilderness. In ten more years the forest would reclaim its own. I walked down past the ruined heap of the barn to look at the well and found Sheila Hannison sitting on the stone curb. I had a mad thought that I was looking at her mother. It seemed impossible that Sheila should grow old. She had the same staight-backed figure, a little riper perhaps, but the black cloud of hair was now a clipped gleaming silver confection that rippled in hair-dresser’s waves below a smart little three-cornered hat. She was wearing a grey costume of some sort with a rich mink cape about her shoulders and the long shapely ankles were crossed in grey silk. Her hands were quiet in her lap.
She said “Hello, Jeff. This must be visitor’s day.” Quietly, just like that. I had a feeling that she had been watching me. I said, ” Yes,” inanely. I could think of nothing to say. It was like talking to a stranger. Her long lips were thinner than I remembered, perhaps because they were compressed, and expressionless. In the old days her mouth had been a barometer for her emotions; you could read her mood from the lower lip alone. Her face now seemed to have drawn inwards, leaving a long faint shadow under the high cheek-bones. The passionate flaring nostrils were the same, though, and the arched black eyebrows, and her eyes were enormous and very bright, but there was a brooding in them where the gaiety had been, and a suggestion of hardness. There was a hint of rouge, delicately shaded, high on each cheek. She was a handsome woman. “If we’d been sweethearts,” she said evenly, “this is the point where I should say, ‘At last, my darling, you have come.'” I felt between my shoulder blades the queer chill that my mother used to call ‘somebody walking on your grave.’ I said, “It must be, what–twenty six years?”
She pulled at the fur cape and examined her gloves. “Yes. I went away to New York. You knew that, of course.” I smiled faintly. “With Charlie’s Aunt, wasn’t it?”
“I played in their company for a time, yes. They went broke in a small town in New Jersey, and I went back to New York. It was like that for several years; getting a job in a road show, going broke somewhere, returning to New York, hunting about the agencies again. Then I got a chance in a musical show, and people liked my singing and dancing. After that, more singing and dancing. Then drama, which was what I really wanted. It was easy, really.”
“I never saw your name,” I said. She stirred the cape with her shoulders.
“I couldn’t use my own name. Jack had that.” So that was it. He had cast off the family name along with the rest. An absurd thought came into my mouth.
“It’d be queer, Sheila, if Jack were to come along now.” She gave me a long deep look. There was no reproach in her eyes, only that touch of hardness. There was something horribly unreal about it, this chic elderly ghost of Sheila Hannison talking of lights and music and fun.
“It would be very embarrassing. He’s married, quite happily I think, and there’s a family of three boys and two girls, the oldest almost at college age. And there’s the management of the family affairs. But you wouldn’t know about that.”
“I thought–we all thought–that Jack was some sort of runaway nobleman,” I said.
She laughed. There was music in her laughter still, but no warmth, like the tinkle of ice in a glass. “I wondered what Milltown thought. Jack’s people were merchant aristocracy, which is very much more respectable. The Nonconformist Conscience. An actress in the family? No no! So we ran away to live like the babes in the woods. Jack hated them for the way they treated me, and I hated them for the way they treated him. It was a jolly fine hate. But Jack and I couldn’t get along on that alone.” She was silent for a moment, and then said very rapidly, “You thought we were madly in love, didn’t you? So did we. But you saw how utterly different we were. It was impossible. You thought I left him in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice, didn’t you?–so he could go back to his people and the life he was fitted for! Well, you were wrong, all of you. I left him because I couldn’t stand it any longer. I wanted lights and music and all the fun of the fair. He wanted to lose himself in a nightmare of work and loneliness. I felt like the girl in the fairy tale, dragged off into the forest by an ogre in the shape of a young man. Cooped up in that lonely house! The long dull days and the awful nights! I never wonder now at those prairie tragedies where a man or woman goes mad and slaughters the whole family, preferably with an axe. It’s so utterly logical; like two and two making four.”
I put the question that was burning my tongue. “And Jack? Do you know what became of him, I mean?”
“Yes. Humphrey, the older brother, was killed in France quite early in the war. Humphrey was decent. He and Jack were very fond of each other. It was Humphrey who risked the parental wrath and scraped up the thousand pounds we brought to Canada. The news came to Jack in some casual way months after Humphrey died, and he went to England and enlisted as a private. In the name of Hannison–my name. He must have been good fighting material. He was a captain when the war finished. He had that stubborn ruthless streak and a grudge to work off, a touch of the devil within, I suppose. There was no hate left in him, when peace came. He went home to the family bosom, the prodigal son and heir. A few years later he got a divorce. Grounds, desertion, of course. I saw a legal advertisement in one of the New York papers, the Times, I think.” She was smoothing her gloves again.
“You seem,” I said bluntly, “to have followed his career very closely.”
“I was interested, of course. And information came to me in roundabout ways.”
She gave me a quick glance. “You forget I’ve had a career.”
“Actresses marry,” I said. “Are you sure you’re not still in love with Jack?”
“After all these years? How absurd. Of course,” she said slowly, “I still consider myself his wife. I always shall. I don’t mean anything sentimental or religious; and certainly no legal foolishness. There was nothing after Jack; in those few years I’d given him everything, and when it was over I had no more capacity for marriage. I’m not making it very clear, I’m afraid. It’s like giving away, no, using up, a part of your nerves and perceptions! After that, all men are just so many talking dummies. They never seem quite human, at least not in an intimate and personal sense.”
“Then,” I said brutally, “sentiment aside, what are you doing here?”
She drew in those expressionless lips and gazed towards the ruin of the house. “The murderer and the scene of the crime. I wanted to see it again. After all, we had some happy times here, all of us, in those first two years, I’ve thought of them often. And old Dixie. What ever became of Dixie?”
“He went to the poor-house after a time. I think he was quite happy there. When he was dying somebody–the keeper’s wife, I think; she was a Willis from Milltown–mentioned something about burying him in the Milltown Baptist cemetery and Dixie called out in a loud voice that he’d be damned if he’d be buried amongst strangers. So his grave by request is in the poor-house yard.”
“Poor Dixie.” For the first time there was a tremor in her voice. But when I looked at her she met my eyes firmly, even coldly. That touch of hardness.
A long and glistening car pulled up beside mine on the post-road, and a horn blew a little harmony on three notes. It was an expensive sound. Sheila stooped to brush her skirt and stood up settling the cape about her shoulders. Her eyes met mine. She lingered in front of me smiling faintly, as if I were something quite impersonal and rather amusing, a not-very-talkative dummy perhaps; and then I looked down and saw her out-stretched hand. “This is goodbye, Jeff. To you and to Mac and Harry and Bill and Harvey and the rest.” I wondered if I should say that half the boys were dead and the girls married and gone long ago, but it did not seem important.
I shook her hand and dropped it woodenly. “And Nine Mile House?” I said.
Again that long look. “I said good-bye to Nine Mile House twenty six years ago. This is only a ghost. I shall always think of it as I knew it.”
Without another word she left me and walked past the ruins to her car. She did not turn her elegant head once. There was none of the old animal grace, but a perfect poise and timing that was beautiful in its perfection, steady, serene, confident, as if she were making an exit from a stage, as if she had just played a difficult scene and played it rather well.