SOMETIMES THINGS TAKE TWENTY YEARS TO HAPPEN FAST
Back to the Pleasures of Pitt, Ontario
It’s the middle of the night when Archer returns to the Fredericks’ boardinghouse. He is rudely received by Mrs. Fredericks, who is angry that Archer cost him two boarders. She denies seeing her son recently, but her husband contradicts her. He says his wife told him that their son and a girl were there a few hours ago, but then they went into town to stay at the Pitt Hotel for the night. Archer leaves the Fredericks to continue the nasty argument that is evidently all that remains of their relationship.
When Archer registers at the front desk of the hotel, the line above his is filled out in the names of “Mr. and Mrs. John Galton.” He approaches the door with his gun drawn. John Galton answers the door and Archer orders him to raise his hands and turn around. Arches sees that John’s back is covered with old scars from childhood beatings at the hands of Mr. Fredericks.
Sheila is there, of course, in bed wearing one of John’s shirts. She admits they haven’t had time to get married yet. As a nod towards either the morality of the time or Macdonald’s conviction that premarital sex is punishable by death, she explains that nothing has happened between them and that John slept at the foot of the bed.
With that important business out of the way, a few loose ends remain.
- John had always suspected that Nelson Fredericks couldn’t be his father because no father could beat his own child like that.
- When John was small his mother told him stories about how he was the son of a king but the bogeyman stole him away and took him to a land of ice. She showed him a gold ring with a ruby that she said the king had left to her.
- When he was sixteen he met Culligan, who was boarding there. Fredericks and Culligan argued several times. Culligan told John the whole story—that Fredericks’ real name was Fred Nelson, that Nelson had met John’s mother at the Red Horse Inn and taken her to live with him, that she married Anthony Galton after Nelson was sent away to prison, and that Nelson broke out and murdered Anthony Galton. (Culligan withholds that there has been bad blood between himself and Nelson for years over his mother. Culligan was the one who first found her at the Red Horse Inn and then Nelson muscled in, beat Culligan severely, and took the girl for himself. And while we’re on the subject of things John doesn’t know, when Culligan was hospitalized from the beating, he met his future wife Marian, the nurse, who later went to work for the Browns.)
- That same night he learned at least part of the truth, John stabbed Fredericks with the butcher knife. John and Culligan tried to cross the border but Culligan was caught. John didn’t see Culligan again until the previous winter.
- When he met Culligan again, Culligan had changed his story. He said Fredericks had nothing to do with his father’s death. The boy didn’t know what to believe but decided to play along when he suggested the Galton deception.
- Archer tells him that Culligan set up the robbery that led to Anthony Galton’s death.
- John realizes that his mother has been lying to him all along.
It’s time for a family reunion, sort of.
The Last Visit to the Frederick’s Boardinghouse, Thank God
Archer drives the couple to the boardinghouse and Mrs. Fredericks answers the door. It’s very late, not yet dawn. John brushes past her looking for Nelson.
- They find the body of Fredericks, who is also Shoulders Nelson, in a back room. He hung himself rather than go back to prison.
- Fredericks says that she saw Nelson cut off Anthony Galton’s head with an ax; then Nelson stood over John’s crib with the bloody ax and made her swear to marry him and keep quiet about what had happened.
- She stayed with him till John ran away; at that point, she had nothing left in her life but him, and so she stayed.
- She doesn’t apologize or ask forgiveness; she just tells John to leave her alone and “take good care of your girl.”
I would be misrepresenting the tone of the ending if I related only the raw facts. Nearly every commentator talks about how the book moves from bleakness to a sense of hope and you should decide for yourself.
Somewhere outside, a single bird raised its voice for a few notes, then fell into abashed silence. I went to the window. The river was white. The trees and buildings on its banks were resuming their colors and shapes. A light went on in one of the other houses. As if at this human signal, the bird raised its voice again.
Sheila said: “Listen.”
John turned his head to listen. Even the dead man seemed to be listening.