A HOUSE OF HER OWN
by 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 end of a long day, she could still smell the tar. She’d insisted on a front porch, no matter how small the house. The tar didn’t matter; the smell would go, but her new home would stay.
Emily had married North West Mounted Police Constable Ernest 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 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.
Emily 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, if she had to live in that tiny bedroom off her grim mother-in-law’s kitchen one moment past one year, she surely didn’t know how she’d be able to hold her tongue!
It was late in the summer of 1905 in the settlement around Fort Calgary, on the day of Emily’s seventeenth birthday. Ernest had finally promised to build this little house one day last winter. He'd watched fondly as Emily suddenly grabbed her shawl and ran outside, looked around the large yard, then ran across the road to the line of young trees on the hillside, seeking a windfall branch.
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 facing 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 fit so they’d not touch or have very much of the houses right beside each other.
Emily arranged small rooms, dividing them with lines in the snow. There! She’d done it! She could prove to Ernest that a house – HER OWN HOUSE – would fit right here, right in this yard. Right in the half of the property the Hardings gave Emily and Ernest as a wedding present.
Well, they probably didn’t mean it literally, but Emily dragged Ernest outside 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 short hedges and little bushes between herself and the hill across the road.
After a moment her eyes were drawn again to the earthen pot newly suspended from the edge of the front porch roof. In it was a still-young geranium. She’d carefully taken a cutting from her mother’s large, healthy plant, itself rooted from her grandmother’s and planted on the day Emily was born. Lovingly tended until she was grown enough to take care of a snippet of her own.
Taken on a brief visit to her parent’s farm to introduce her new husband, Emily carried the little plantling with her on the long train trip across the country. Watered with tears of adjustment more than once by now, but none the worse for the salt it seemed.
During the first six months of her marriage the tiny plant grew roots in the little blue bottle her mother gave her with it, and now thrived in the earthen pot. Several months ago, after Ernest promised to build the house for this year’s birthday, she’d snipped off the top bit. The plant was tall and spindly, but thickened nicely once a little was taken off the top. The new cutting, placed in her mother’s bottle on the 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 her own address to prove it! Mother Harding, as she insisted on being called, could just go jump in the river less than a hundred yards away 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 older woman took her barely endurable time, meticulously washing each item three times over. Knowing full well the newly married Emily wanted only to be done with the everlasting chores and rush to the side of her eager young husband!
Emily took her gaze down from the geranium, doubled in size since she’d lovingly dug a little hole for the second snippet, used 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, she knew these two little miracles, these links to her own childhood home and family, would be smiling at her right now.
Emily was partially aware of why she incurred the wrath of her mother-in-law more and more often, more deeply. To begin with, she had been the only woman in the lives of her son and husband, and in the lives of most of their fellow Mounted Policemen. In short, the centre of attention.
Until the night a bit less than a year ago when Ernest came home from his training session in the East holding Emily, his bride, by the hand.
Emily and Ernest first met at Union Station in Toronto, amid the crowds and the confusing vastness of the largest building either of them had ever seen. Ernest, just in from the West, literally bumped into pretty young Emily, fresh from the farm.
Emily, aside from her love of the earth, showed no interest in anything or anyone in the vicinity of her home. Her mother finally threw up her hands in frustration at Emily’s perpetual restlessness, and sent her to an 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 he was looking her right in the face.
Mutual excuse me’s died on the lips of both young people – Ernest a mere five years older than Emily – as each searched the eyes of the other. Both unwilling, or unable, to believe their own senses. Ernest had never seen such a lovely 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 foot seven, with her shoes off.
Ernest couldn’t believe the feelings, the excitement that welled up in him at the thought of her bare feet! He raised his eyes, then let them travel slowly from the girl’s long, wavy dark hair and large green eyes, down the length of the homemade cotton dress, to the shapely, suntanned legs, bare from mid-calf down to her little leather boots. 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 to find and touch the woman inside her – with one careless bump on the shoulder and a couple of glances. She didn’t understand the flood of feelings engulfing her, but felt her legs go weak as Ernest continued to hold her gaze.
Seeing her falter, Ernest’s strong arm went protectively around the waist of the only girl he’d ever met who actually excited an instant reaction in him. His arm felt as if it had been around this woman’s waist hundreds of times. In Ernest’s mind, at the touch of her, Emily was 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 let Ernest fold her towards him, and rested her head on his broad shoulder.
She inhaled the smells of him; man smells she’d never noticed before. She shivered, and glanced shyly upward. In a soft and tentative voice, slightly breathless, she said, “Hello. I’m Emily. Who are you?”
It didn’t take long, only two weeks that seemed to be outside the ordinary frames of time and existence, holding only the two of them. Meeting in High Park in the evenings when her aunt was with friends and Ernest’s training was over for the day. Falling in love.
Then the divine evening when Ernest 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 away from the real life of job hunting for her and Mounted Police training for Ernest. Their time together 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 dream than substance, that Ernest said, “Gee, Honey, why don’t we just get married? You don’t need to find any job that would keep you here, 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 tendril stick to the light sheen of perspiration on her neck. Ernest gently pulled on the curl, then blew on the side of her neck to cool her, making Emily shiver. Emily looked at the ground, unsure of herself and of him. The hours spent together flew like nothing she’d known, while their time apart crawled like a slow-moving beetle.
Ernest 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, Ernest raised his intended’s hand to his lips and placed a simple kiss. Didn’t matter that he wasn’t very high up in the Police rankings yet; he had ambitions.
“Miss Emily,” Ernest began, looking intently at her glowingly transformed face. “I’m sorry to have blurted out my intentions. I should have done this properly, 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, crazy as that sounds...” He paused for a breath.
Emily’s heart was pounding. A deeply romantic girl, she 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 Ernest - yes! Let’s find out what we have to do!”
Emily didn’t think 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 Ernest 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.
She couldn’t believe her eyes last year when her Ernie came home with a wife! Nora knew she shouldn’t have let him go away for weeks on that stupid training! But her husband insisted that if she wanted her son to rise up through the ranks, and in a growing frontier town 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 he had the pretensions of one. He would have been, if he’d been born the first instead of the fifth son of a landed nobleman. Emigration to Canada 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 being 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 London shipping office five years before, left a lot to be desired. The Hardings seemed unable to completely acclimatize themselves to the altitude, about thirty 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. 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 in this area. 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 temperatures so hot it’s difficult to move from the weight of the heat.
But beautiful! Every moment, it was beautiful! The Rocky Mountains made it glorious. 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 North West 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 secretly cheered the girl’s insistence on having her own house. They were relieved to have their own space back. They’d gotten used to the quiet of the house, just the two of them, when Ernest 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 Ernest’s heart usurped so abruptly. She’d anticipated him eventually finding a young woman, perhaps one of her friends’ daughters from England. Somehow the years passed too quickly. Her little Ernie grew up far too soon, before she expected it or had a chance to accept the inevitable. And Nora had no other children to stand in the empty place in her heart to alleviate the pain of what she perceived as the loss of her son.
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 Emily 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 all the other men could not keep their eyes away from the girl either. Nora’s well-kept and efficiently maintained good looks were no longer enough to awaken the men’s interest, not with Emily’s vibrant, newly awakened womanhood 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, carving a foothold for commerce and peaceful existence out of the former wilderness. The community was the same age as Emily.
It had not been long since herds of buffalo and wild Indians roamed the same hill that marched up towards the south, outside the Harding ladies homes. Soon, the beautifully scenic frontier town would have new hordes to contend with - the impending arrival of almost a million inhabitants over the next century.
And inside herself, young Emily felt the first faint stirrings of a new life as she sat on the crudely made front porch, revelling in the fact that she finally had a house of her own!
If you would like to read more of Alice's excellent work go to the Poems section where you will find several contributions from her.
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