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A House of Her Own


Alice C. Bateman

It wasn’t a tarpaper shack to Emily, it was Home.  As far as she was concerned, it was Heaven.  With her feet up on the front porch railing, relaxing at the close of a long day, she could still smell the tar.  She’d insisted on a front porch, no matter how small the house. It didn’t matter; the smell would go, but her new home would stay.

Emily married North West Mounted Police Constable Earnest Harding almost a year ago, and spent the first six months of the union nagging her new husband to build her a house of her own. 

He always said they couldn’t afford to buy their own property until he was older and been promoted.  She always said she was a farm girl, he knew that very well when he married her.  She needed her own house to grow her own plants inside during the long winters, and her own dirt to plant outside flowers in the spring. 

She insisted with a little stamp of her foot that her fingers and toes would simply fall off from the lack of being able to sink into HER OWN DIRT!

Besides which, if she’d had to live in that little tiny bedroom off her sour and grim mother-in-law’s kitchen one moment longer, she surely didn’t know how she’d have held her tongue!

It was late summer of 1905, the day of Emily’s seventeenth birthday.

Earnest finally promised to build this little house one day last winter.  Emily had suddenly burst outside in her shawl one bright morning, looked around the large yard snow-covered yard, and then ran across the street to the line of young trees on the hillside, looking for a windfall branch.

After looking around the base of the third tree, she found a strong enough stick and ran back to the wintry yard.  She began carving lines into the crisp February snow on the north side of the yard, between the carriage house that faced the back alley and the narrow dirt road going up Scotsman’s Hill at the front.

Impatiently, Emily kicked snow into a groove she’d just made.  There was no way she wanted so much of her house right next to Ma Harding’s.  Back, back a few feet.  She’d make it to fit so they’d not touch or have very much of the houses right next to each other, and still leave room for the privy out back.

Emily concentrated fully on her task, arranging small rooms, dividing them with snow lines.  There!  She’d done it!  She could prove to Earnest that a house – HER OWN HOUSE – would fit right here, right in this yard.  Right in the half of the property they’d given Emily and Earnest as a wedding present.

Well, they probably didn’t mean it literally, but Emily dragged Earnest out to show him her snow house, and she won her point.  And now she had her feet up on her own front porch railing, looking over the tops of the small hedges and little bushes between her and the hill across the road.

After a moment her eyes were drawn again to the earthen pot she’d just suspended from the front porch roof support.  In it was a still-young slip of climbing ivy.  She’d carefully taken a cutting from her mother’s large, healthy specimen, itself rooted from her grandmother’s and planted under her bedroom window on the day Emily was born.  Lovingly tended until she was grown enough to remove a snippet of her own to take care of.

She’d borne the little plantling with her all across the country with her new husband, taken on her last visit to her parent’s farm in Ontario.  Watered with her own tears more than once by now, but none the worse for the salt it seemed.

In the first six months of her marriage the tiny plant grew roots in the little blue bottle her mother gave her with it, and then in the earthen pot it was thriving in now.  Six months ago, after Earnest promised her house for this year’s birthday, she’d snipped off the top bit.  The plant had grown too spindly, but thickened nicely once a bit was snipped off the end.  And the new cutting, placed in her mother’s little bottle on her bedroom windowsill, thrived and grew despite the frosty disapproval of Emily’s mother-in-law.

Mrs. Harding – the older Mrs. Harding, Emily reminded herself; that title was for her now too!  And she even had the address to prove it!  Ma Harding, as she insisted on being called, could just go jump in the river for all Emily cared, now that she had HER OWN HOUSE!

No more holding the dish drying rag with seeming patience and sweetness while the old bat took her sweet time about meticulously washing each item three times over.  Knowing full well the newly married Emily wanted only to rush to the side of her eager young husband, and be done with the everlasting chores!

Emily took her gaze down from the ivy, doubled in size since she’d lovingly dug a little hole for the second snippet, using a fingertip to manipulate the earth inside the pot, and tenderly placed the brand new root tendrils under a little mound of soil.  If plants could smile back, she knew that these two little miracles, these links to her own childhood home and mother, would be smiling at her right now.

She was fully aware of why she incurred the wrath of her mother-in-law more and more often, more deeply.  To begin with, the dragon lady had been the only woman in the lives of her son and her husband, and in the lives of most of her husband’s fellow Mounted Policemen.  In short, the centre of attention.

Until the night, a bit less than a year ago, when Earnest came home from a training session in the East, holding Emily, his bride, by the hand.

Emily and Earnest first met at Union Station in Toronto, amid the crowds and the confusing vastness of the largest building either of them had ever seen.  Earnest, just in from the west, literally bumped into pretty little Emily, fresh from the farm.

Emily, aside from her love of the earth, showed no interest in anything or anyone in her home area.  Her mother finally threw up her hands in frustration at Emily’s perpetual restlessness, and sent her to the aunt in Toronto to find a job, a husband, or both.  Emily thought she was merely visiting her aunt, but the grown women knew what the girl needed.  And in her first few minutes in the bustle of Toronto’s busy train station, here it was looking her right in the face.

Mutual ‘excuse me’s’ died on the lips of both startled young people as each searched the eyes of the other.  Both unwilling – or unable – to believe their own senses.  Earnest, a mere five years older than Emily, had never seen such a girl; tall and slender, but with an ample bosom, and not too tall that she diminished him in the least, at six foot one.  He figured her to be about five feet seven, with her shoes off.

Earnest couldn’t believe the feelings, the excitement that welled up in him when he pictured her bare feet!  He raised his eyes, then let them travel slowly from the girl’s long, wavy dark hair, enlarged green eyes, down the length of the homemade cotton dress, to the legs bare from the knees down.  He couldn’t help but notice the deep colour in her cheeks as his gaze came again to rest on Emily’s face; this time, on her naturally red lips.

Emily remained tongue tied, gazing wide-eyed and mute at the first male who had ever found and touched the female inside her, with one careless bump on the shoulder and a couple of glances.  She didn’t understand the flood of feelings hitting her, but felt her legs go weak as Earnest continued to hold her gaze.

Seeing her begin to falter, Earnest’s strong arm shot out and around the waist of the only girl he’d ever met who’d actually excited an instant reaction in him.  His arm felt as if it had been around this woman’s waist hundreds of times.  In Earnest’s mind, at the touch of her, she was already elevated from the status of girl to that of woman.

For both young people, feelings and thoughts were kaleidoscopic, so fast there was no time for words.  With his strong arm around her waist, Emily allowed a display of weakness.  She allowed Earnest to fold her towards him, and rested her head on his broad shoulder.

Emily  inhaled the smells of him, man smells she’d never noticed before.  A shiver raced through her, and she glanced shyly upward.  In a soft and tentative voice, slightly breathless, she said, “Hello.  I’m Emily.  Who are you?”

It was not long, only two weeks that seemed to be outside the ordinary frames of time and existence, holding only the two of them.  Sneaking visits in High Park in the evenings when her aunt was with friends and Earnest’s training was over for the day.

The divine evening when Earnest wore his dress uniform and escorted her to the new Ballroom on the lakeshore.  Emily sat on her front porch, looking west at the setting sun, remembering the lights and music, floating and reflecting off the surface of Lake Ontario. A magical time in a magical place; a heartbeat from the Real Life of job hunting for her and training for Earnest.  So far removed in its own dreamlike orbit as to seem a dream itself.

It was while slow dancing to the music of an orchestra she never knew the name of, in a place that seemed more smoke than substance, that Earnest said, “Gee, Honey, why don’t we just get married?  You don’t need to find any job that could keep you here in the big city, too far away from me!”

He stopped dancing, drew her by the hand back to their outdoor table.  A breeze blew off Lake Ontario, ruffling the short curly bits of stray hair around Emily’s face, making a sweat damp tendril stick to her neck.  Earnest plucked it off and blew on the side of her neck gently to cool her, making gooseflesh race all over Emily.  She looked at their feet, unsure of herself and of him.  The time they spent together flew like nothing she’d known, and their time apart crawled like a slow-moving beetle.

Earnest tilted her chin up, and then changed his mind and got down on one knee, taking her left hand in his.  An officer and a gentleman before all else, Earnest raised his intended’s hand to his lips and placed a simple kiss.  Didn’t matter that he wasn’t a very high up member of the Mounted Police; he had ambitions.

“Miss Emily,” he began, looking up at Emily.  “I am sorry to have blurted out my intentions.  I should have done this properly and all, talked to your parents and my parents and the preacher and all, but I just want to marry you, Emily.  I want to take you home as my wife, because I love you, and I know I’ll always love you.  I think I always have loved you, as crazy as that sounds...”  He paused for a breath.

Emily’s heart was pounding.  She was a deeply romantic girl, believed fully in love and destiny.  She was literally swept off her feet by the surge of emotions swelling inside her chest - and other body parts Emily hadn’t paid much attention to before.

Before she could hear any misgivings her brain might conjure up, Emily listened to the pleadings of her heart and the demands of her body.  She clapped her hands together in excitement as she answered, “Yes!  Oh, Earnest, yes!  Let’s find out what we have to do!”

Emily hadn’t thought far enough ahead to realize this life transition would include a new mother, a new woman in her life who had absolutely no desire to have a grown daughter, even if it was a daughter-in-law.  Certainly not a rival female who made the other officers and men envious and lonelier than before, one who made them stand in line to get their names down for the next training session back East.  One who took the attention of the men away from where it should be firmly riveted, in the older Mrs. Harding’s mind, on her!

Inside the larger house, just vacated by Earnest and Emily – thank God that whining little wretch was out from under her roof! – Nora Harding sat and contemplated the new undercurrents in her home.  Or perhaps the lack of undercurrents would be a better way of looking at it.

She couldn’t believe her eyes last year when her young Ernie came home with a wife!  Nora knew she shouldn’t let him go on that stupid training thing!  But her husband insisted that if she wanted her son to rise up through the ranks - and in a growing frontier town at that, where there could be some real power to be had - she’d better bloody well let him do what he had to do!  The ‘bloody’ shouted at the top of His Lordship’s lungs, just in case she’d suddenly come down with a case of deafness, Nora presumed.

Mr. Harding was not really a Lordship, but had the pretensions of one.  He would have been, if not for the meaninglessness of being born a fifth son of a petty nobleman.  Emigration to Canada had seemed preferable to Nigel Harding over penniless obscurity in dear old England.  He often decried his circumstances, a mere hireling with a uniform.  And a horse, if the beasts could only stay alive in this cursed climate!  A far cry from the Lord of the Manor in a much more genteel existence than the one he and Nora endured in Canada.

Fort Calgary, this Godforsaken outpost they’d been assigned to when the Harding men answered a recruiting poster in the shipping office five years before, in London, left a lot to be desired.   The Hardings seemed unable to completely acclimatize themselves to the altitude, about twenty five hundred feet above sea level.  Or to the harsh extremes of temperature.  Not fit for man nor beast; no wonder the bloody horses couldn’t stay alive!

The area was deceptive and treacherous weather-wise.  A detail of men could set out early on a beautiful summer day for a rendezvous with outlying settlers, only to limp home, demoralized, in a driving blizzard a few hours later.  No one knew how to deal with the weather this area dealt out.  Extremes ranged from far below freezing in the winter - temperatures that make it impossible to draw a breath and take any benefit from it - to summer temperatures so hot it’s impossible to move an inch from the weight of the heat on the body.

But beautiful! Every moment, it was beautiful!  And there was no crowding, no class definitions, no beggars on the streets or drunkards in the pubs.  Just about everybody here seemed to be a hard working, deep thinking, progressive spirited individual.  Nigel well knew how hard it was to find an individual under a uniform in peacetime.  But he also knew how many young men, even older ones like himself, used the Northwest Mounted Police as a means to an end.

Sure, they did their job, but they also seemed to have underlying plans, most of these men.  They were eager to make an impression, to keep order in the community and the countryside.  But at the same time they were taking a look around, thinking about what part of that same countryside they’d like to own, what they would like to raise on the farmsteads and ranches they envisioned.

Behind the young couple’s back, Nigel and Nora had secretly cheered the young girl’s resolve to have her own house.  They were relieved to have their own space back. They’d gotten used to the quiet of their home, just the two of them, when Earnest was back East for his training. 

Nora’s open disapproval of the wife came from feelings she didn’t know how to control.  She was not prepared to have her place in Earnest’s heart usurped so abruptly.  She’d anticipated Earnest eventually finding a young woman, perhaps one of her friend’s daughters from England.  Somehow the years passed too quickly; Earnest grew up far too soon, before she expected it or had a chance to accept the transition.  She had no other children to stand in his place in her heart at the loss of this one.

Nora prayed to God daily that she would find an increase in patience for her daughter-in-law.  But when she could see the need for acceptance and reassurance in the girl, she pushed her farther away instead of gathering her in.  Nora knew this was not the right thing to do, but somehow she could not help herself.  Not only had Emily come into her home and stolen her son, but her husband and any and all other men who were about could not keep their eyes away from Emily either.  Nora’s well-kept and efficiently maintained good looks were no longer enough to awaken the men’s interest - not with Emily’s smoking, newly awakened sexuality among them.

It was not the girl’s fault men found her so remarkable, so desirable.  There was a scarcity of women in and around Fort Calgary, unless one wanted to choose a native bride, and few had looked in that direction as yet.  The Fort had only been in operation since 1888 – it was the same age as that girl out there! - carving a foothold for commerce and peaceful existence out of the former wilderness.

It had not been long since herds of buffalo roamed the same hill that marched up towards the south, outside the house.  Now, the beautifully scenic frontier town had new hordes to contend with; the impending arrival of a million inhabitants over the next century.

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