Night by the Fire: a John Dunn story

0

We always looked for a big tree at Christmas because the place for it in the doctor’s house was in the front hall just ahead if you came in the front door. Set up against the front staircase and close to the door to the inner office, its top would reach easily to the curve in the stirs, and the spruce smell would reach out through the house.

The small tads of Senior First had made not only the big leap to Junior Second, but another kind of advance in knowledge which is never recorded in school by passing of examinations. It wasn’t even spoken of openly, but it was very simple: everyone was aware that we knew. No use trying to fool us any more: we had passed through the myth of Santa Clause. We knew all about Christmas, the real legend of Christmas. We were growing up. Perhaps we could even go out by ourselves to get a tree. After all, this was a special year, the Year of Jubilee, the year of nineteen and twenty-seven as they reckoned the passage of time around the blacksmith shop.

Two weeks before Christmas, when we were coming to the end of the year, three of us set out on a Saturday morning to walk to the Burnt Lands for the tree. We brought an axe, a hatchet, a piece of rope, and, of course, the toboggan. We went prepared, because we always looked for a big tree.

The old men often spoke of the troubles they used to have in winder when they were “up the Opeongo” with the teams of horses, skidding out logs, and the terrible time it was when the snow lay deep in the bush and the horses floundered in it up to the belly-bands. We figured the toboggan would help us skid our tree out to the road if the snow happened to be heavy.

We took turns with the hatchet, cutting and hacking, until the tree began to wobble a little and the V-cut was almost through to the other side. Then we all just leaned on the tree and pushed it over. A few more hacks on the last flap of bark and we stood back and looked at it lying there in the snow and the stump sticking up jagged and rough in the cut, as if it had been chewed off by an old beaver with one front tooth missing.

It was time to get our second wind. That was something the men spoke of with admiration. “Just wait ‘til you get your second wind. You’ll be all right then.”

We’d need our second wind for dragging the tree out to the road, even with the toboggan for a help, but once we had that part of it made, the rest would be just a steady pull with the toboggan on the hard-packed snow where horses and sleights and worn tracks slick on the road.

It was a good tree and it lasted until Little Christmas at the end of the first week of January. By that time the floor underneath it was carpeted with a litter of spruce needles, and every time the front door opened, a gust of air would cause the tree to tremble, and another shower of needles to rain down, so that they crackled underfoot like loose sand on the varnished oak floor.

That was enough. It had to go. It was only a skeleton anyway. In a matter of minutes the decorations came off, the tinsel, the star, the paper bells that folded up, and the tree disappeared out through the front door and was taken round to the woodshed at the back of the house.

Yet, in a strange way, even though the legend of Christmas lingered behind in the house, and became entwined with other legends, all spun out from woolly mounds of impressions and woven into a fabric of history in the whole.

That evening of Little Christmas, I was reading a book, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens which had been left under the tree for me. At the end, when Tiny Tim burst out with, “God bless us, everyone!” he capped Scrooge’s redeeming virtue, the warm virtue of generosity at Christmas, and I closed the book and pushed it aside and just lay there stretched out on the rug on the floor before the fireplace, chip cupped in both hands, and watched the fire, enjoying the heat from the elm block burning in the iron basket.

It was altogether comforting and I was glad to be inside, because all that short January day the weather had worsened. By late afternoon, the sun was no more than a chalk smudge on a blackboard sky, and by supper time the wind leaped like a wild, maddened animal, rearing and plunging frenziedly against the stone walls of the house and rattling the glass in the storm windows.

The cut-leaf maple that stood like a sentinel beside the house shuddered and cringed from the stinging blasts and stretched out frost-stiffened limbs, creaking desperately in the pitiless night.

But here in front of the fire place only a small hissing noise sifted out from the burning elm to mix with the distant tremors of the fury outside as the wind blew hollow down the echo-chamber of the flue. I was bemused with fire fascination, watching the small tongues of flame dart out from the log, and go back, and leap out again to burn a moment and fade away, their flickering shapes always melting and re-forming.

A click sounded from the office. The latch lifted, and men’s voices followed a moment later by creaking as the door swung open on a rusty hinge. Another creak, and a whoosh as the door swung back tight against the brass weather stripping and the latch clicked back into place.

The doctor came in through the door to the inner office and sat down. I didn’t know if my father knew anything about Dickens, but he might. I’d ask anyway.

“Dad, when did Charles Dickens live?”

“Dickens died in 1870, because that was the year before I was born,” he said. “And I think that Dickens was not yet sixty when he died. He was probably born about 1812.”

The wind was strong and it moaned continually under the overhang of the eaves like a spirit tormented, pounding against the stone walls, and rattling a loose pane of glass in the storm window where the putty had fallen out.

“Was this house built in Dickens’ time?” I asked.

“About the time of his death. Yes, it was,” my father replied.

“Around Confederation?”

“Yes, it was started that summer of Confederation, but it was not fully finished and ready to be occupied until two years later in 1869,” he said.

“Do you know who built this house?” I went on.

“Doctor Mostyn built this house,” he replied.

“Mostyn?”

The questioning tone in my voice said clearly that the name Mostyn which he had used was a name unknown to me. It was certainly not in the telephone book. In fact, this was the first time I had ever heard the name used, and I wondered if I had heard it right.

“Yes, Doctor William Mostyn,” my father reaffirmed the information, and repeated the name for my benefit.

The telephone rang and he had to leave the room to answer it. I stayed there on the rug just staring, and wondering. The underneath part of the elm block was all fire-reddened with glowing hot embers, but along the top and sides the bark still clung to the log. Small tongues of flame licked steadily up from the bottom, and wisps of blue smoke seeped out between cracks in the mossy bark, and drifted up lazily as if wondering where to go until suddenly they were caught in the updraft of the flue and whirled away past the soot-smeared throat of the fireplace.

CRACK! A shiver of fear rippled along my spine and I sat up startled. A limb had snapped on the maple tree and had fallen against the house, and its twig-ends had scraped across the glass of the storm window. Only that. I turned back to fire-watching as my father returned from the telephone.

“Where did he get the stone to build this house?” I asked.

“The stone was probably quarried on this very spot. That’s why the basement is ten feet deep and the floor is a flat platform of bed rock,” he said.

He made it sound like the work of a giant.

“Where did Dr. Mostyn come from?” I asked again.

“He came from Kingston, although he was born in Ireland.”

Born in Ireland! Was it possible? Perhaps he was descended from a race of giants!

“Did anyone else live here?” I asked again.

“Well, first there was Doctor Mostyn, and then Doctor Lynch,” my father began, and suddenly my mind opened to a new light.

“You mean,” I said, “Doctor Mostyn, and then Doctor Lynch, and then us. That means three doctors since the house was built. Is that why they call it the doctor’s house?”

“Probably so,” my father replied.

Another flutter of wind in the flue startled the sleepy fire and fanned the flames out into new life from the bottom, just as a stray gust of wind on a summer’s day ruffles the tail feathers of a rooster.

“Where did Doctor Lynch come from?” I asked once more.

“He came from Sheenboro, Quebec, but his family came originally from a parish of the same name in Ireland,” the doctor explained.

“Did your parents come from Ireland too?” I persisted.

“Our people came from a little place called Ballindaggan in County Waterford, not far from Cork City,” he said.

“Then that means,” I went on with some excitement,”That three doctors have lived in this house, and that three doctors were all Irish.”

“Yes, you could say that.”

A glowing ember burned off and fell away from the elm log. It was mostly bark, and, as it fell to the ashes below, a skittering of sparks leaped out in a fireworks display before arching over and falling down also. Instinctively, I pushed back from the fire, and sat up. Ghostly shapes and gigantic shadows dancing in total silence made weird patterns on the walls.

“Is Mostyn an Irish name?” I enquired.

“Not in the ordinary sense,” my father replied. “It’s not like O’Keefe or Ryan, O’Donnell and O’Neill, or even Lynch or Dunn, although the name Mostyn as been prominent in Ireland for about two centuries. I suppose,” he said, “the name Mostyn is probably Welsh in origin.”

“Welsh?” I repeated it almost incredulously, wondering if the man who built the doctor’s house and first lived in it might also have had a distant kinship with Merlin the magician.

“Yes,” my father continued, “The Mostyns probably came to Ireland from Swansea district.”

Strangely, strangely, behind those ghostly shapes dancing on the walls I noticed familiar things in the house as if for the first time. I looked in growing wonder at the grey-veined marble of the fireplace, the tall windows, the heavy oak doors and wide mouldings, the wide front hall with the marvellous coloured windows, one by the front door and another half-way up the stairs, with alternating panes of red and blue glass. They were puzzling because from the inside I could see easily through the glass but from outside you couldn’t see in at all.

My father put down the newspaper and went down to the basement to fix the furnace for the night.

Even upstairs, I thought, the windows were just as big as the windows downstairs, but they were different too, because they were half-round on top, and they had window seats in them, padded and comfortable where you could sit and look out. The one in the front room on the south side had been my favourite place the year before to look out through the still-naked cut leaf maple to catch all the signs of springtime, the dull boom of the Mississippi crashing over the falls, the startling rat-a-tat-a-tat of a woodpecker in the red oak tree at the front, the whine of hornets at the window, enamelled all over in purple and black and glinting in the sun.

That window seat was a quiet place, but whiffs of either and chloroform from the office came up the front stairs to mingle there with the warm barm yeasting its way through the house from the kitchen, and the smell of horse blankets told more than the muffled voices of men in the office of talk about one of the terminal aspects of medicine, like drawing up a will and witnessing it.

My reverie was broken by the telephone. My father was still at the furnace, so I answered.

“Is that the doctor’s house,” a caller enquired.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is the doctor in?”

“Yes, he’ll be here in a minute.” I went to call him, hoping for his sake that he would not have to go out in the cold January night

He shut the door to the basement and came to the phone. His conversation was brief.

“Yes…..yes……All right.”

“Do you have to go out?” I asked.

“Only to the hospital,” he said.