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Glen Notes (1907-1914)

Chapter Text

April 1914


 Small Mercies


"It's not that I don't want to," Carl sighed. "Believe me, I really do. It's only . . . isn't all this a big enough sin already?"

Shirley shrugged with his free shoulder. "May as well be hanged for sheep as for lamb."

Carl shuddered, pulling far enough away that cold air rushed in to prickle along the new gap between them. "Don't say that."

"What?"

"Hanged."

There was a brief moment of perfect suspense: perfectly silent but for one another's breathing, perfectly still but for one another's heartbeats. The feeble sunshine of an early spring morning struggled through the single window, limning the little rose-papered room at Mrs. MacDougal's boarding house in every possible shade of gray.

"It's not a capital crime," Shirley said. "Not anymore."

Carl snorted. "Is that supposed to sound reassuring? Life in prison's not enough?"

"That's only if we get caught."

"Oh?" Carl rolled onto his back with a bitter exhalation. "And how do you like our chances of never being caught?"

"Mrs. MacDougal isn't the curious type," Shirley said. "And I guess that lock would hold even if she were."

"Yeah?" Carl scoffed. "Going to carry it around with you for the rest of your life, are you?"

How could Shirley be so calm? Didn't he realize what happened to people like them? Carl had heard enough vicious jokes, enough whispered rumors, and then there had been that awful trial in town last winter. It was in all the papers and all the boys at Queen's had laughed over it for a month — all but a few who turned pale or laughed a bit too heartily and noticed one another, perhaps for the first time.

But Shirley had been home in the Glen last winter. Maybe he didn't realize the true scope of the danger. Carl looked down at the lean brown arm encircling his waist and, for one brief moment, imagined handcuffs, manacles, the terrible lashing of a cat o' nine tails . . .

"Why are you so nervous all of a sudden?" Shirley asked.

"Forget it."

"No." Shirley propped himself up on one elbow. "Tell me."

"It's only . . ." Carl hesitated, "only . . . I'm graduating in a few weeks. This year has been . . . well, I'm still not sure I didn't dream it. But it's ending. And there aren't any locks in the Glen."

Shirley frowned. "Maybe not. But there's Redmond."

Carl sat up and swung his legs over the side of the narrow bed. He reached for his hastily-discarded drawers and began pulling them on, his back to Shirley.

"That will end, too. The only permanent lock I'm likely to get will be the one on my cell."

"You're not going to prison, Carl."

"You don't think so?" Carl turned far enough that he could look Shirley in the eye. There was no fear there, even though there should have been. Carl felt he must be perfectly clear, for both their sakes. "Do you know what I did last time I was home?"

"What?"

"I unpacked some of the law books Jerry's been ordering. I took a peek. Section 202 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The statutory sentence is life in prison."

"You looked up the law?" Shirley asked, one brown brow ascending.

"It wasn't difficult," Carl said, pulling on an undershirt. "It's the very first law under the heading Offenses Against Morality."

Shirley did not laugh audibly, but the twinkle in his brown eyes was unmistakable.

"You think it's funny?" Carl asked, incredulous.

"I think you're funny. Looking up the law."

Carl shook his head, unamused. "I just wanted to see what the difference would be."

"The difference?"

"In punishment," Carl explained. "The way I figure it, we're currently guilty of violating Section 206: Gross Indecency."

"Oh?" Shirley asked, still not able to keep the smile from his eyes. "And what's the punishment for that?"

"Five years in prison and a public whipping."

"They don't really whip people anymore, do they? In the twentieth century?"

"I don't know," Carl mumbled. "But I don't particularly want to find out."

There was nothing to say to that, so Shirley said nothing for a long while. When he did speak, there was no trace of teasing in his voice.

"Look, if you don't want to, that's fine. But we're already in a world of trouble if we get caught. I don't think you should decide based on which punishment is a little worse. "

"Life in prison is more than a little worse," Carl said, throwing up his hands.

"Than a public flogging?"

Carl groaned. "Aren't you scared?"

"Not of prison."

"Well, what about hell, then?"

"Don't say that," Shirley muttered, furrowing his brow.

"Why not?"

Shirley sat up and drew his knees protectively toward his chest. "If can't say hanged, you can't say hell."

"Well at least you're appropriately scared for once," Carl observed.

"I'm not."

"What then?"

"Forget it."

"No. What?"

Shirley scowled, wrapping his arms around his knees. "It just feels like . . . like you're blaming me."

Carl blinked, taken aback. "Blaming you?"

Shirley looked away. "Like you think you're going to go to hell and it's all my fault."

Carl had not anticipated this line of argument. If anything, he had worried about the reverse. He was older than Shirley, wasn't he? He should be looking out for him, not getting him into trouble. And Carl had started this whole thing himself, hadn't he, with that mad, reckless kiss last summer? If anyone was leading anyone astray, Carl had assumed he was to blame.

Carl wanted to reach across the bed, lay a comforting hand on Shirley's arm. But everything in Shirley's posture was closed. Cold. Self-protective. Somehow, that cut deeper than any imagined lash.

"No," Carl said. "I don't blame you. Not at all."

"I'm not scared and I'm not sorry," Shirley said with ice in his voice. "But you are."

"I'm not sorry," Carl whispered.

"Well, you sure sound like it."

Carl attempted to swallow the rising knot in his throat. "I'm not. And even if I were, I wouldn't blame you. I'm just . . . worried. We really could go to prison. And I don't want to go to hell."

"I don't think you will," Shirley said coolly. "At least not for this."

It did not seem like the proper moment to argue the theology of this point, so Carl let it pass. He began fiddling with a loose corner of the sheet. Very quietly, he said, "And I'm afraid of our families. Not just what they could do to us. What we might do to them, if we got caught."

"What we might do to them?" Shirley asked, turning toward Carl at last, nose wrinkled in puzzlement.

Carl's voice was barely audible as he studied his hands, the white bit of sheet flicking back and forth between his fingers. "Back when we had the Good Conduct Club, we didn't just punish ourselves for being naughty," he explained. "We punished ourselves for doing things that might hurt Father. Things that would embarrass him or turn the congregation against him."*

"The Good Conduct Club?" Shirley's voice had thawed a bit. "You mean the time you caught pneumonia because you were punishing yourself for no good reason?"**

"It was penance," Carl whispered. "For cowardice. Jerry said we had disgraced the family, and I was more to blame than the girls."

Shirley stretched out a broad, warm hand and laid it over Carl's fidgeting fingers. "You were a little kid," he murmured. "And it wasn't a fair punishment. You almost died over nothing."

Carl sniffed. "Well, I'm not a little kid anymore. But I don't want to disgrace the family any more now than I did then."

"You won't."

"I might."

How would it be, to see Father driven from his pulpit amid scandal and outrage? To be banished from the manse, forbidden from ever seeing Bruce again? Maybe someday, to look up across a courtroom from the dock and see Jerry glaring down at him from the judge's bench? Was anything — anything at all — worth all that?

Carl looked up into soft brown eyes that were as close to worried as he had ever seen them and thought . . . maybe.

Shirley gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. "I know you're worried. I hadn't really thought about what it might mean for your dad — or mine — if we got caught. But we can be careful. And I don't think we're the only sinners in our families."

Carl gave a grudging smirk. "Do you think Faith and Jem are . . . what was the line from that poem? In the green book? Courting disaster . . . ?"

"To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!" Shirley quoted from Whitman's "One Hour to Madness and Joy."

"Yeah. That sounds like them."

"I don't know," Shirley said. "Jem's not really much of a lawbreaker when you come down to it."

"Maybe not," Carl conceded. "In any case, if they get caught, their sentence will be getting married in a hurry."

"Don't forget — Miss Cornelia will frown at them, too. Very sternly." Shirley affected a scowl that did not greatly resemble Mrs. Marshall Elliott, but accomplished its aim in making Carl smile.

"Yeah, while she's stitching baby clothes."

Shirley chuckled. "Well, I don't think we're in much danger of needing a shotgun wedding, no matter what."

"Small mercies."

They laughed together, the sound dispersing some of the stormier clouds that had gathered in the little rose-papered room at the end of Mrs. MacDougal's hall. It wasn't funny, not really, but in a world where they moved as silently as they could, trying to attract as little notice as possible, an uncensored laugh was a sustaining joy. Even when it couldn't last.

"Carl?"

"Hmm?"

"If you're in a cell, I will be, too."

Carl released a leftover breath of amusement. "Somehow, I don't think they'd let us room together anymore."

"No, I guess not. Do you really have to leave? It's barely daylight."

"No, I guess not."

Carl bent to press his lips to Shirley's and allowed himself to be pulled back under the warm bulwark of Mrs. Rachel Lynde's tobacco stripe quilt. That lock would hold. For a few weeks more.


Notes:

*see the whole second half of Rainbow Valley, especially chapters 23 and 31.

**Rainbow Valley, chapter 31: "Carl Does Penance"