Travellin’ Men — a John Dunn story

John-Dunn-e1423861626174During the scorching hot days of mid-July, 1933, the visitor in Almonte had no need to wonder at the regular pace of life in the Woollen Town.  From morning to evening, testimony shouted out on all sides.  The sun rose in the east.  Boys learning to swim splashed and surfaced at the first pier of the front bridge.  The steam whistle on the locomotive of the CPR’s Ottawa-Pembroke local screeched its arrival at ten-ten every morning.  Except Sundays, of course.

Time recorded its sweet regularity with a cacophony of bells and whistles.  From the top of the post office building the town clock sounded out each of the hours by number, day and night.  From the tower of St. Mary’s church the Angelus bell’s clamour at noon reminded the faithful to give thanks for the mystery of their redemption and reconciliation with the heavenly Father.  In the swelling minutes just before one p.m. the visitor would have been awestruck by a spectacular race of weavers, dyers, spinners, bobbin boys and girl stitchers charging down the streets and across the bridges, hastening back to their work in the mills before the one o’clock bell caught them late, frozen stiff at the gate.

At ten-ten on the morning of the fourteenth of July the Ottawa-Pembroke local chuffed in to Almonte station.  And, as usual, from the mail car two bags of mail dropped to the platform.  Up ahead, the baggage master and his assistant wrestled a huge trunk from the train out and down on to the baggage wagon.  “‘Board” shouted the conductor, glancing at his watch, and stepping up from the platform to the car.  All very regular.

The baggage crew swung their wagon round as the locomotive huffed and puffed and slid forward towards the Bridge Street crossing.  Two passengers had got off the train.  One, a gentleman surely, wore a dark blue suit, white shirt and a flamboyant tie, but what confirmed his excellence as a gentleman in the eyes of the baggage crew was the pair of grey flannel spats the man wore over black patent leather shoes.

“I’d be thankful to you two baggage-handlers”, the gentleman addressed them, pausing a moment to strike fire from an Eddy’s sesqui match and bring fire and flame to the butt end of a cigar, “If you would kindly have my trunk taken down to the hotel for me.”

“Yes, sir, we can do that,” the baggage master answered, and immediately received with the gentleman’s thanks, a silver half-dollar, which, the gentleman hoped, would serve as an inducement to the crew to be equally as careful in handling his effects on other occasions likely to follow.

“Who in the world is that?” asked the awed younger of the crew as the baggage wagon rolled towards the station.

“Travellin’ Man,” came the answer.

“What in the world would he have in a great big trunk like this?” asked the curate.

“All kinds of things.  Men’s suits, ladies’ dresses, overcoats, bits and pieces of costume jewellery, tie pins, cuff links, all that kind of thing.  He’ll have it all open on display at the hotel for two or three days, and then he’ll be back here to get the train to Arnprior.  After that he’ll be in Renfrew, and then Pembroke.  Comes from Montreal.  Twice a year, once before Christmas, and once in summer.”

As the baggage wagon reached the overhang of the station the second passenger moved off in the direction of the pool room corner.  The baggage crew noticed that he was quite lame, but his limp was not the kind that many returned men had brought back from the Great War.  “That man looks as if he’s had polio,” remarked the master of the baggage wagon.

“Limps a lot,” said the curate, on second thought adding a smaller observation related to his craft:  “Hasn’t any baggage either.”

On the following day, certainly not more than half an hour after the daily race of the spinners and weavers, the bobbin boys and the girls in stitches, the office door bell rang at the doctor’s house.

“Oh dear,” Mother said, fussing momentarily with her hands in the flour barrel.  She turned for help to Arthur whose mornings in summer were taken up with a railroader’s duties as telegram delivery boy and curate to the baggage master.

“Would you mind seeing who is at the office door,” she asked.  “I can’t go myself at this moment, but your father is somewhere out in the garden at the back.”

Arthur rose to the occasion, went inside and opened the office door to admit a man before returning to the kitchen to call the doctor in from the potato patch.

“Who is it?” asked Mother in a low voice.

“A stranger,” began Arthur, “A lame man,” and added “Saw him yesterday at the station.  He got off the morning local from Ottawa.”

The low hum of conversation from the office suggested that the stranger must have had something interesting to talk about with the doctor.  Half an hour went by and Arthur left to return to his railroader’s duties.

The following day the stranger again rang the office door bell.  And again at one-thirty, on the mark.  On the third day the same regular ring as on the two preceding.  A certain uniformity attached itself to these visits.

They became mixed into all the other proceedings around the blacksmith shop, so much so that if they’d been interrupted for any reason surprise would have come over the watchers of the Anvil Parliament.   It would have been much the same kind of surprise that would have struck them if the Ottawa-Pembroke train had not come into the station at ten-ten.

To the three members on the front step of the blacksmith shop, blessed both by nature and by inheritance with the wider view of things, the limping stranger’s daily excursions towards the doctor’s house had certainly not passed without notice.  In fact those appearances at one-thirty aroused in them a species of senatorial disquietude mixed with unspeakable frustration, a mixture with potential for explosive outbursts at any time.

“Dang it,” one of them expostulated, “There’s that lame feller again goin’ across the road towards the doctor’s office.  What in the world would make any man need to see the doctor every day of the week?”

“Beats me,” a colleague answered.  “Man’s badly crippled though.  Mebbe he suffers a lot of pain.”  This was as close as the colleague could come since his diagnostic skills came from a ploughman’s perspective in the furrow, based wholly on evidence of discomforts of livestock associated with the walking plough.

“Dang it anyways,” the previous speaker continued his expostulation to the assembly.  Strengthening the temper of his remarks by swinging his cane at an itinerant grasshopper in the ante-chamber, he complained “It don’t please me one little bit when a man moves in to the neighbourhood and we don’t know a single thing about him.  Not even his name!”

“Hah! Today might be your lucky day, senator,” the blacksmith announced, releasing the crank of the fan on the forge, “I see one of the doctor’s boys coming this way on his bicycle.  If you wise men were to ask him you just might find out the name of this lame feller.”

When the bike stopped in front, just on the verges of the spit range, the young rider set one foot on the ground and held his mount by the halter.

“Say, sonny,” the inquisitor began, “There’s that lame feller goes across the road towards the doctor’s office every day ’bout this time.  Would you happen to know his name?”

“Says his name’s ‘Joe'”.

“‘Joe’.  That all?”

“Yes, that’s all.  Never heard any last name at all.”

A nibble only this was, but a nibble.  It stopped the flow of diagnosis for the moment, but it did nothing for the deeper frustration in the senatorial assembly.  In fact the nibble seemed to raise up a flow of peripheral scraps of information. Useless stuff, the inquisitor thought.

“Someone told me yesterday that he thought the man’s got a room in a house over on Union Street,” the blacksmith added.

“That’d be close enough to the doctor’s house that he could walk over to the office every day, lame as he is,” observed the third senator, the one from the east creek side.  “But there’s another thing I’ve noticed,” he went on.

“What’s that?” invited his two colleagues.

“The man smokes tailor-mades.  ‘Rex’ is his brand.  Twice I’ve seen him buyin’ his cigarettes at the shop round the corner.”

Mental calculations from the front step revved up.  “Man must have money comin’ in from somewhere,” said the first senator.  “Package of tailor-mades’d cost him twenty-five cents every day of the week.”

“A big difference from a packet of ‘Old Chum’ fine cut with Vogue papers to roll your own.  That’s fifteen cents a week.”

“Big difference indeed.”

“B’lieve me!”

Tailor-mades.  A man named ‘Joe’.  A room on Union Street.  Scratch as they might for information, the grits that tumbled into the senatorial In basket numbered but three, and the assembly lapsed into silence.  Frustration still simmered though, just below the boiling point.

Deep thoughts hovering inside senatorial skulls, as everyone acquainted with horses should know, require proper atmosphere for germination and growth.  That atmosphere demands smoke to secure the developing thoughts from the germs of folly, much in the same way as salt saves meat, or smoke from hickory chips savours a ham.  On the front step of the blacksmith shop the time had come for lighting the pipe.

So strong was this urge that one member reached inside his Carhartt’s overalls for an Eddy’s sesqui, the one essential firestriker, to bring fire to his pipe and enlightenment to the assembly.  He struck the match, watched it burst into flame, and held it aside while the flame subsided.  Fires of frustration glowed beneath his battered fedora while the matchstick’s flame ate up the basswood greedily, edging perceptibly closer to the owner’s thumbnail.  The senatorial gaze, fixed on the doctor’s house, saw not the approaching flame.  Fire toyed with thumbnail, bit and singed the flesh.  Charred thumb and hurt feelings struck.  A geyser called senatorial wrath erupted.

“Dangnation!” exploded the scorched one, burning with shame added to frustration.  “This is all because of that lame feller that nobody knows anything about.  What in the world could any man have to talk to the doctor about every blamed day of the week?”

“Beats me,” said the senator from the east creek side.  “But confound it all, I have t’admit I hate a mystery man in the neighbourhood.”

“Yup,” agreed the third senator.  “Two months at least the man’s been livin’ round here, and we don’t know one single thing about him yet, ‘cept that he’s lame.  That’s something can’t be helped, even by the doctor.”

“Makes a man suspicion whatever brought the man to stay in town at all,” concluded the charred thumb senator, morosely uneasy even in the sunlight.

On Thursday of that first week of August when shimmering heat waves struck out at Jimmy Buchan’s sunflowers and fell helplessly to the ground, a small crack began to show in the shell of Joe’s other life.  ‘T was a hairline fracture only, barely even a suspicion, but it was enough.  Out through the crack the word “horseman” escaped.

Oh, no, not the horseman in the shanties up the Opeongo, no, none of that kind of thing at all at all.  This time the word came with a strange image of a group of summer mendicants who resorted to a place in Upper New York called Saratoga Springs.

At that resort, so ran the rumour, was a famous race track for thoroughbreds, and that was the place where knowledgeable and comradely horsemen in high boots were wont to gather in the fall season for some high livin’ and flat racin’.

Furthermore, as the rumour fed well and waxed strong and healthy, there came the tasty morsel that Joe’s background had given him specialized and richly valuable knowledge of horseflesh, the kind of knowledge indeed that would easily lift a man out from behind the plough, enabling him to drop the lines for Dan and Prince, and walk away from the furrow forever.

As this element reached the senatorial bench at the blacksmith shop it produced instantaneous and gruffly offensive neighing sounds from the seated members, much as if they had unexpectedly come to chew on a mouthful of barley.

Inside the doctor’s house, however, the information caused Mother’s eyes to squint with an intense wariness.  “I think I should tell you youngsters,” she stated “That whenever you go to answer the office door bell for your father, don’t ever, ever, touch any thing on his desk.  Medicine, or pills especially.”

And in this manner of wariness and fruiting suspicion August passed into September.  The first Thursday of that month brought the same spectacular rosy hue in the eastern sky at daybreak; the Angelus bell rang from the tower of St. Mary’s on the stroke of noon, but at one-thirtythe office door bell at the doctor’s house rang not.  The silence was shattering.  “Has anyone heard the office door bell ring?” Mother asked.

“No.”  The answer was simply and uncomplicated.

“That’s strange,” she muttered.

Friday afternoon began with the same silence.  On Saturday, however, the rumour mill ran breathlessly: Joe was no where to be seen in the neighbourhood.  His absence caused a rash of irritation amongst the members of the bench brigade.

“Anybody seen that lame feller?” asked the speaker of the assembly.

“Not for some four, five days, like.”

“Mebbe he got a telegram sayin’ they needed a real horseman down there at Saratoga” the blacksmith observed behind a snicker.

At the doctor’s house Mother’s concerns rose to the surface.  “Do you think he might have decided to move on?” she asked.

“Most likely that’s it,” the doctor thought, before adding a postscript, “If it is, in a way, I’m disappointed.”

Mother was not.  She was quick to state her views.  “I can’t say I’m one bit sorry if he’s really gone elsewhere.”  It was as if some worrisome load had been lifted from her shoulders.

“But why would you be disappointed?” asked the curate for the baggagemaster at the station.

“At first when he came to ask for help,” the doctor began, “He told me he’d been taking two grains a day.”  The recollection caused him to grimace with a terrible time in the past.  “That’s enough to kill a horse,” he declared.  “And that’s how powerful a grip the habit had on him.  Furthermore, he’d been taking two grains every day.”  Another terrible grimace.

“Over the past few months I’ve reduced the dosage, every week.  Less and less.  All leading towards complete withdrawal.  Strangely enough I’d planned the first substitution, the test of total withdrawal, to begin on Monday last.

“Is that why you’re disappointed?” Mother asked, “Because you had brought him to the very edge of total withdrawal?”

“Partly that, because there’s a very poor record of success in medical history with total withdrawal.  In spite of that dismal record, in this case, one more day would have been the ultimate test of the patient’s will power and determination.”

“So now you’ll never know?”

“Probably not, but still more important is whether he will ever know.  Likely not.  That makes the case very sad.  I know this patient even at this moment might be lying helplessly sick in some stable or barn.  That’s a sadness that haunts a physician.”

“I remember seeing get off the train one morning” Arthur said.  “There was only one other passenger, a well-dressed Travellin’ Man with a big trunk that he asked us to get down to the hotel.  Joe didn’t look much like the Travellin’ Man: he arrived with no baggage at all.”

“All he had then he’s left here, his shadow,” the doctor said.  Perhaps it’s the shadow of missed opportunity.  We may never know.”