The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE CIRCLE OF AFFECTION


 

BEFORE THE PROCESSION STARTED they always made sure, and doubly sure, that the door was locked; Julia tried it first, then her father, and when there was no doubt about it he put the key in his pocket. Then the trio left the house and took up the order of march. First went the dog Tasso, who to judge from his bearing was the most important of the three. He carried a little basket of his own, empty on the way to the shops but containing something precious on the way home, a pound of tea or butter. Then Mr. Maggs and his daughter Julia followed. The Reverend John Maggs kept up the fiction of his clerical standing by always wearing a white collar and tie. His daughter devised her own fashion of dress which suited her; the only trouble was to keep her mass of golden hair under her hat, for she was secretly proud of its colour, its length and its weight, and she did not want everyone to stare if it suddenly fell down, as had happened once or twice on the street. The house they left proclaimed its unfinished state. For it was the unit of a scheme for two semi-detached houses which the owner had failed to carry out. He had provided a complete stone foundation for two houses and had found himself with sufficient funds to finish one only. It stood beside the vacant cellar with its first and only coat of paint almost gone, and its need of general repairs very evident. But it suited its tenants.

    The house faced south, and when the sun shone a flood of light fell into the room. As they opened the door on a sunny day after one of their visits to the shops everything seemed transfigured; the worn carpet and the odd furniture harmonized with the aspect of the room, for even the interior was unfinished; there was no hall and the stairway was unclosed and rose from the floor to the ceiling protected only by a rail. The room was large because the partition which had been designed between a parlour and a dining-room was absent. The only real disfigurement was a large upright coal-stove, a ‘base-burner’, as it was called in Ottawa in the seventies. It was ornamented with bright steel trimmings, and small windows of mica showed the flow of the fire behind them. Julia disliked this stove, but when the sun shone and fell on her piano she forgot it and her heart was glad. It was a small square piano of four-and-a-half octaves, with a light tough and a dulcet tone; it had belonged to her mother. Julia would stroke the wood of the case, rich-coloured in the sunlight, as if it were the cheek of a child. “This is rosewood”, she would say to her music-pupils and often to herself dreamily. She had vague ideas of a magnificent rose-tree that could produce such wood, but she could not imagine the beauty of a rose to be borne by such a tree.

    This house had been their residence for a few years and it was home to them now. They were inured to a routine life, which was sufficient for Mr. Maggs but which held no future for Julia, who was only twenty and knew that she had lovely hair. Even her unobservant father knew that: “Julia, you have lovely hair and you flit about it in the way your dear mother did.” Julia was at the piano, graceful and still for a moment in the sunlight. Her mother had died when the girl was fifteen. Tears came into her father’s eyes. She rushed upon him with Tasso in her arms: “Now Father, darling, cheer up; you have dear Tasso and me, haven’t you?” Tasso had been her mother’s pet: she had taught him all his clever tricks. These three understood one another; they might seem to be cut off from the rest of the world, but here was a circle of affection which met all their needs.

    Julia had been taught by her mother and had never known the advantage or disadvantage of a schoolroom; she was a treasure to be watched and guarded. Mr. Maggs, who had had a long experience in caring for his invalid wife, would not, even then, when his daughter and he were alone together, allow Julia to wash dishes or do any rough work; dusting and bed-making could be allowed, but nothing more strenuous; a charwoman came in once a week. Moreover, Mr. Maggs was an excellent ‘plain’ cook and enjoyed practicing that art and general ‘cleaning up’ operations. Now that all pastoral duties had been cancelled he delighted most in his hens, in housework and in pottering about. They did not ‘take in’ a daily paper and since Julia’s reading was confined to the few books she could get from the Sunday School library she had soon read all that were readable. There was her piano for a pastime and she played simple music delightfully. Not knowing the world she was unworldly, but she had slumbering ambitions which were mundane and which gave her unrest. She was apprehensive of the future, of what would happen tomorrow or next year–a feeling difficult to describe. Her mother had warned her that she was impulsive: “Julia, dear, don’t be so impulsive!” Julia did not know what would happen if she gave way to impulse, but she was suspicious of herself and watchful.

    All Julia’s knowledge of music came from her mother’s teaching, and it was indeed limited, but when one of the neighbours asked her to teach her child she thought ‘impulsively’ that she would take a number of pupils. Her father thought that it would give her something to do and encouraged her. “We must advertise, Julia, dear; no one in this place can play the piano as you can; not in the newspaper, but I’ll put up a sign that will show people.” On a piece of smooth plank that exactly fitted the lintel of the front door he painted, doing the lettering with great care:

MISS MAGGS MUSICAL ACADEMY

They both thought it very effective; knowing passers-by may have smiled at first, but the lettering faded with time and the sign became part of the general appearance of the house and by and by no one looked at it. But it brought Julia a few pupils. The curriculum of the Academy consisted of a thorough grounding in Plaidy’s Five Finger Exercises, a most disagreeable experience for any pupil; but Julia’s invariable response to any protest was “Plaidy contains everything.” Her most advanced pupil was working toward a goal set by her father “Father wants me to learn a piece where I cross my hands.”

    The Academy was firmly established, and the gaunt house seemed, as time slipped by, to be more and more home. It suited them and their peculiarities. There was vacant land in the rear, quite enough for a garden; the tall walls of a warehouse bounded the north and east sides, and the east wall was covered by a luxuriant Virginia creeper; it was fenced on the south, a protection against the vacant cellar; and to the west was the part sacred to the hens; here was the very center of the Reverend John Maggs’ life. Their Establishment blocked the lane and the rear entrance; only the front door gave access to the house for pupils or for the delivery of food or fuel.

    If it had not been for Mr. Maggs’ infatuation for the rearing and care of poultry these last years might have been passed amid other surroundings. The Stationing Committee of the Methodist Conference had placed him at Jasper to give him a last chance, although he did not know that himself. He had failed many times to please his parishioners; there was always some difficulty, usually arising from his idiosyncrasies. At Jasper there was a nice little parsonage. Mr. Maggs arrived alone one day in the depth of winter. He was just finding his way about when two crates of poultry that he had sent by express arrived before he expected them. To his surprise there was no proper outside convenience for them, and they were a precious group of Brahmaputras, a rooster and eight hens. He ordered the crates to put in the hall; they filled the space and there was no room to move, and it seemed to Mr. Maggs quite natural and appropriate to put them in the parlour.

    “You shouldn’t have done that, Reverend Darling; if I had been there I would have prevented you.”

    “Well Julia dear, you were not there. I put newspapers on the carpet, I moved the furniture and covered it as well as I could, and it was all the fault of the rooster. He broke out of one of the crates and the hens followed. I did not think he was that strong.” He was a bird of gorgeous colour and imperial manner, with a voice like a trumpet.

    That may have been a satisfactory explanation for Mr. Maggs, but not for the Convener of the Ladies’ Aid Society, who called two days afterwards; she opened the parlour door and a hen flew in her face. Julia never saw Jasper and her father was gently told by his superiors that he was not ‘called’ to the ministry. The congregation was indignant, for the rooster and his concubines had not been aware of the importance of their surroundings and the parlour was inspected for days after Mr. Maggs’ departure. The obloquy of this episode followed him to Ottawa and it established his reputation for eccentricity. But no one was sorry for him or his motherless daughter because it was generally known that he had ‘money of his own.’ His wife had been an invalid but she had a clear head and a perfect understanding of her husband’s failing, and left her money in trust for them both. There was a constant revenue of about a hundred dollars a month, which was affluence in the Ottawa of the seventies.

    But it would not have been even competence if that revenue had been managed by Mr. Maggs; and much to his surprise Julia said to him one day, “Father, Darling, I’m going to manage the money after this.” He submitted without a word of protest. Julia began to learn something of the mysteries of banking, and she was surprised one morning by an admiring teller asking her why she did not open a savings account; at once the mystery of Interest was revealed to her and she felt financial stirrings from inherited faculties. Nothing was demanded of them in their new life. Mr. Maggs was thought of as an eccentric, his wits always seemed to be wool-gathering; but Julia was never placed in that category. No one could view with indifference the trio as they went shopping; the golden-haired Julia with her graceful poise, her father, shorter of stature, shuffling along with an absent minded air, as if he had forgotten something; and the valiant Tasso leading off resolutely, despite his age, with his basket firmly held; and before they left the house they were sure and doubly sure, that the door was locked. Here was the Circle of Affection, protected by life’s dull routine. Was it never to be broken?

    One morning Julia, rather flustered, announced, “Father, dear, we have a new milkman.”

    “Who is it and what happened to old Mr. Vipond?”

    “This milkman is much younger and stronger; he simply jumped into the wagon. I wish, Father dear, that you would take the milk for a few mornings and find out about him.”

    The next day as Julia watched from the window, her father had an interview with the new milkman. He carried the milk into the kitchen, set the jug down and looked very serious.

    “I think, Julia dearest, that I had better take in the milk after this.”

    “Why, father, whatever has happened?”

    “Well, I think he’s a dangerous young man and profane. His name is Abner Tudhope. He said he’s not going to take up the milk delivery as a profession, only to get some ready money. Then he said he was studying, and when I asked him if he were studying for the ministry—Julia don’t be shocked!—he took the name of his God in vain, he said, ‘By God, no!’” Julia was not so very shocked.

    “That’s dreadful, Reverend Darling; but perhaps he said ‘My God, no!’”

    “That would be just as bad. He’s a profane young man and he went off whistling carelessly. I’ll take in the milk after this; when he knocks don’t go to the door.”

    There was an ornamental knocker on the door, but this young man had his own way of announcing himself; he rapped three times on the panel with his knuckles—that was his own peculiar signal. For a while Mr. Maggs did his duty, but Julia’s curiosity was not satisfied. “Ask this Mr. Tudhope what he is studying to be, Reverend Darling.” Mr. Maggs came back with the answer, “Most extraordinary, he’s studying to be an astrologer; at first he hesitated as if he didn’t want to confess it; he may be an atheist for all we know.”

    Julia gathered from her dictionary that an astrologer studied the influence of the stars on human affairs. That satisfied her curiosity, but only increased her interest. She knew that an atheist was a dreadful person, and she did not think that that young man with the dark hair and bright-sort-of-eyes could be an atheist—an astrologer, maybe, but not an atheist, and before long she resumed the duty of receiving the milk supply.

    Led by the physical delight of seeing this vigorous youth rearrange the heavy milk-cans, or leap from the vehicle with the quart measure and with a supply of the fluid in a small can, Julia found herself even waiting for him, looking from the window with the milk-jug ready. One bright morning she saw him deliberately and thoroughly stir the contents of one of the large cans with the butt of his whip. She was angry when she opened the door to his familiar triple knock.

    “One quart please; you shouldn’t have done that, it’s filthy.”

    “Done what?”

    “Stir up the milk with your dirty whip-stock.” He was surprised and stopped whistling.

    “Oh! All right, Julia, I won’t do it again.”

    She was very angry.

    “How dare you call me Julia? I would never think of calling you by your first name.”

    “You may call me Abner if you want to.” He did not seem at all embarrassed and went off whistling as usual. Julia’s first impulse was to give vent to her feelings by slamming the door, but while she lingered a moment that feeling weakened. She closed the door more quietly than usual and went slowly into the kitchen where her father was.

    “Why, Julia, dearest, you’re all of a tremble and your face is all pinky and blossomified. Don’t spill the milk. If you’re going to faint drink some hot water.” That was his one remedy for all human ills; he detested drugs and doctors and would have no traffic with them. “No, Reverend Darling, no hot water; look after the milk, please.”

    “I was certainly impulsive,” she thought afterwards, “I must be careful.”

    To any disinterested observer the gradual deterioration in Tasso would have been evident, but this devoted pair did not observe it. They accepted each encroachment on his vitality without really noticing it; they merely took on some additional care which was quickly adopted as routine. He gave up his tricks. “Well, darling, you must remember he’s done them so often that he must be getting tired of them.” “Yes, Julia, if I had lain dead or kept a bit of meat on my nose as often as he has I would be inclined to give over.” Often Tasso refused to eat, his legs failed, he was carried here and there, laid in the sun for warmth or placed in the shade for coolness. He was considered in every way, but he could not hold out forever to be the object of such devotion, and one dreadful morning Julia found him dead in his box. Yes, he was dead. The Tasso whom they had companioned for thirteen years had departed this life. In the future, Julia would describe the scene. “He looked as natural as natural. I called him, but he didn’t move, I touched him, I screamed: ‘Father darling, Tasso is gone.’ ‘Gone where?’ said father, coming in with the teapot in his hand. ‘Gone, gone dead!’”

    One whole day was taken up with admiring him as he lay in his box, ‘as natural as natural’. The next day the idea that Tasso should be buried where he first came to them sprang into their minds simultaneously; shadowy at first, it soon took on the form of a command and Julia adopted it impulsively. There was a railway journey with a change of trains to be faced; there was a drive into the country; there was all the uncertainty of place and weather, but nothing was feared. There was a command, as if issued by Tasso himself, that his body could not rest easy in any other situation. Then there were hurried consultations with the railway agent and discussions about expenses. It was not until the third day that Mr. Maggs set about providing a box for transportation and burial, which he referred to as Tasso’s coffin. Julia had not felt that she could receive the milk and this morning her father came to her with the full jug and with three last autumnal roses tied by a ribbon and with a small card attached: “Sympathy from Abner Tudhope”. Julia laid them on the rose-wood piano without a word. Four days had gone and they were still in preparation for the journey.

    Meanwhile, Tasso’s remains were deciding, inevitably, in the way of mortality that they should be interred without delay, and on the last of these days of perplexity and debate it became evident that a journey with such a burden would be impossible.

    “Why, darling, they might put us off the train.”

    “True as Gospel truth; they might not even let us get on.”

    “Perhaps after we had paid for our fares?” said Julia in dismay.

    “At the Junction, two hours to wait; if it was raining they might put us out of the station.”

    “If we kept him in the open air?” mused Julia.

    But they had wasted the time in useless grief, retrospect and discussion and the eccentric notion of burying Tasso where he had come to them, a waif and stray, on that January morning had to be abandoned. Mr. Maggs dug the grave himself, dug it large and deep; and the unwonted labour exhausted him. Julia, secretly, put Mr. Tudhope’s roses in the box and they buried Tasso with heavy hearts, deep down by the brick wall of the warehouse at the root of the Virginia creeper. While the old man did not actually perform a funeral service, as he shoveled in the earth and mounded the surface, his mind was full of memories of great words of consolation, for Tasso had become almost a human being. But for Julia there seemed to be no consolation and she shed tears for the first time since Tasso had left them. Autumn was come and the Virginia creeper hung its tapestry of gorgeous colour on the wall and kept its last leaves of crimson beauty to cover the grave.

    The Circle of Affection was broken. They had for so long formed a trio, had been so wont to act, almost to think, as it were, in threes that life seemed to have lost its purpose. Hens had no important place in world affairs, and Julia had no spirit in enforcing the axiom that everything was contained in Plaidy. But life had to go forward; they carried on the usual barter and exchange, but the walks to and fro were lonely. Their friends behind the counters noticed their dejection and tried to help them by praising the lost Tasso, and advising them to ‘cheer up’, that the hens set them an example, for the eggs were larger and ‘fresher’ than ever. This pleasantry would serve for the moment, but there was always the sense of something lacking when they opened the door and faced the vacant room. Even the rich light on the curves of the rosewood piano could not comfort Julia’s heart. She took in the milk without a smile and with no reference to roses or sympathy. She was not going to be impulsive again. The conversation was simply to be, ‘Good morning,—one (or two) quarts, please,—thank you’. Abner did not seem to notice and whistled as blithely as ever.

    Their routine of mutual help was resumed, but there was one important change. Every night at ten o’clock Mr. Maggs, as usual, read a passage from the New Testament and they both knelt while he prayed. Julia had liked these prayers in which her father indulged his gift of allusion and imagery, and the important change in what remained of the Circle of Affection was Julia’s inattention to the evening devotions. As the weeks lengthened after Tasso’s departure inattention grew into indifference. She knew Gospels by heart and their words ran over her mind like ripples over the stones in a brook, but she no longer followed the prayers; their eloquence was lost on her. She lapsed both physically and mentally into sitting on the floor with her arms under her head on the chair, and into vague dreams. Not infrequently there was a memory of roses, and of Mr. Tudhope flitting about in a shadowy fashion. One night her dream was disturbed by a long silence. Her father had ceased praying, but had not risen from his knees; Julia found him on the floor leaning against the chair. She raised him with difficulty, and with an effort he said, “I think I must have fainted; I never fainted before.” “Father darling, what’s the matter?” “Well, Julia, dearest Julia, I don’t know; I was praying and I was overcome; not a vision, no sudden light, but an indistinctness and I forgot.” He sat in his chair. “Get me some hot water, Julia darling.” When he had drunk a sufficient quantity of the hot water he got to bed rather feebly. But in the morning he seemed well and went about his work as usual. This occurrence made Julia more apprehensive than ever. What would happen next in this strange world? Mr. Maggs himself was disturbed and there was even an uncertainty about things in the poultry-world; it was early in January and already there was too much snow on the ground and Mr. Maggs found it almost impossible to keep it cleared away.

    But, fortunately, something occurred that gave them both a renewed interest in life. One grey morning with the damp snow of a January thaw falling, one of Julia’s pupils appeared, lugging a good-sized dog. The little girl was out of breath and excited. Without the prelude of the usual morning greeting she plunged into the delivery of her message.

    “He said to say to you that you and Reverend Darling needed another dog.”

    “Who said?”

    “Uncle Abner; he said to say to you exactly that you and Reverend Darling needed another dog.” The child still clutched the dog and her music.

    “Put the dog down,” said Julia severely. “You and Reverend Darling!” This was indeed familiarity. As the dog stood firm on his feet the child went on: “And he said, Uncle Abner, he said, you may call him Tasso if you want to.”

    Julia went over and leaned against the piano. She watched the terrier, who evidently had Scotch blood and who looked the very reincarnation of Tasso; he made himself at home on the instant of his arrival. Julia was so confused between the use of that intimate address, ‘Reverend Darling’, and the memory of the words ‘You may call me Abner if you want to’, that she said dreamily, stroking the soft round cheek of the curve of the piano, “You know, this is rosewood.”

    The Dog established himself with complete self-confidence. In two days he knew the whole house and the yard, and understood that it was a crime to chase the hens. Thoughts diverted from the past and a new present came into being; as they became acquainted with him Mr. Maggs took hold anew upon his faith in poultry, and Julia even began again to hear her father as he prayed with increased unction. For many days the newcomer was referred to mainly as The Dog, but Mr. Maggs said one morning: “We only call him Dog, but I think verily he is worthy of a name, Julia dearest.”

    “Yes, Reverend Darling, I think he is.” She hesitated for a moment.

    “We may call him Tasso if we want to.”

    “Yes, we’ll christen him Tasso, and we’ll teach him all Tasso’s tricks. He came to us on a January morning just as Tasso did and I believe he came as an inspiration from Above; we needed him and you know what Scripture says, a divine inspiration.”

    “Well, father, divine perhaps, but we should remember that Mr. Tudhope gave us Tasso.” She called his name for the first time, she felt jealous for Mr. Tudhope’s share in this gift ‘from Above’.

    “That’s true, Julia dearest, but one could have been inspired.”

    “By the stars?” Julia enquired.

    “Perhaps,” answered her father, “I think there is a star they call the Dog Star.”

    “Why Reverend Darling, Mr. Tudhope will be a wonderful Astrologer.” A new sort of happiness took possession of her heart; an emotion she had never felt before.

    Julia wished to think of Tasso’s advent as the work of man alone, and she struggled with her shyness to thank the giver. One morning before long she accomplished it. She had supported herself in her relations with Mr. Tudhope by the formula, “I’m always polite and civil to him”; but was she not slightly irritated that his treatment of her was always ‘polite and civil’? He was so handsome, so dark and strong, and she could not think of him as irresolute. He was formidable, but she was determined to thank him; she would not be ‘impulsive’, she would merely thank him. “Thank you for the dog, Mr. Tudhope.” “That’s all right, he’s a well-bred dog and knowing; you could teach that dog anything, Miss Maggs; you could teach him to play the piano.” Abner went off carelessly, whistling as usual and left Julia rather abashed. Did she quite welcome the formal Miss Maggs? She had ‘put him in his place’, but did she not miss the fresh, crisp morning-sound of that ‘Julia’? And then was he scorning her ability to teach his niece to play the piano; scorn was a word she had caught from Reverend Darling; and if that was not too strong a word did it mean contempt for her beloved piano; or did it mean that he thought her clever enough for any task? She could not keep her mind on the morning lesson and three times she told Mr. Tudhope’s niece that Plaidy contained everything.

    There had been something in Mr. Tudhope’s bearing and accent lately that strengthened that new, strange feeling in Julia’s heart. Was he less abrupt in his movements, was the gentleness in his voice, or what new quality had crept into it? His silent performance of the measuring of the milk was almost a solemnity. What did all this mean, or was it only her fancy? On one morning especially she said, “One quart, please, Mr. Tudhope,” and after he had measured carefully they stood facing each other. He lingered with the cans in his hand as if he had a word to say. They gazed at or through each other; they were as if charmed for seconds of time that seemed endless to Julia. Would he never go? Julia felt faint before he turned away and went down the path slowly as if the cans were a heavy burden. “Why, Julia dearest, you’re all of a tremble, are you going to faint? Drink some hot water.” “No Reverend Darling; I just felt queer for a moment.” “And you got two quarts instead of one; one was all we needed.” “Mr. Tudhope must have made a mistake,” said Julia. But two had made the mistake.

    The training of Tasso was a relief from these new experiences and uncertainties. The classic part of his education was delayed by Julia’s lightness of heart; she teased Tasso and he frolicked with her. “You’re too playward with him,” her father said, “you gambol together and he won’t take anything you say seriously.” The training was indeed a problem, for Mr. Tudhope had flattered the dog’s natural endowment and he proved anything but teachable. He could not be made to realize his importance as one of the three in the procession to the shops; he objected to carrying his basket; he dropped it on the street, and as he often lagged, it had to be recovered and his company was more of a nuisance than a pride. He learned, however, the elements of begging, and he sometimes kept a bit of meat on his nose until the word was given. All the training devolved on Julia, for Father Darling seemed to have become indifferent to that great cause and even to the greater care of his flock. He carried out his routine, but a mist had fallen upon his thought and his act. His bedtime prayers grew short and dull. Julia was absorbed in her effort to prove that Mr. Tudhope’s Tasso was as clever as he said. She laughed secretly when she remembered. “No”, she thought, “he will never be able to play the piano.” She unconsciously forgot her Reverend Darling, and in the inner silence of each day she waited for the three decisive taps on the door. Warm August nights found her at her bedroom window, impulsively leaving her bed clad in her long cotton nightgown with the linen frills at neck and sleeves. In her bare feet, as she regarded the stars that seemed never to move behind the trees, she wondered which, if any, of all those bright ones was this magical Dog Star.

    One morning Julia, waiting for one of the votaries of Plaidy, was trying to get the intractable Tasso to perfect one of his half-learned tricks. Her father had gathered up the breakfast dishes and, as usual, was pottering about in the kitchen. Suddenly Tasso accomplished something. It was perfect, he was immovable, no beating of his tail, no twitching of his paws. Julia was absorbed watching him, and a sound from the kitchen entered her consciousness but failed to alarm her; a thud and the crash of a broken dish. She cried out, “Reverend Darling!” There was no reply. She was afraid to move lest she disturb the accomplished Tasso. “Father Darling, come quickly.” Still there was no voice, no movement. “Father, you’ll miss it; Tasso is lying dead.” At the word dead a presentiment clutched her heart; she moved toward the kitchen. Tasso rolled over and became ‘alive’, but she had forgotten him. What confusion in her thought, what sharp memories! Had she expected to see her father come with the teapot in his hand as he had on that morning when the original Tasso died? At the kitchen door she touched the handle, but could not summon courage to turn it. “Father?” she whispered, “Father Darling, Tasso is lying…” At that moment came the three resolute raps on the front-door. Julia rushed to it. “Abner, Abner Darling, come, come quickly.”