Death in the Age of Steam

BOOK: Death in the Age of Steam
in the
Age of Steam

Mel Bradshaw

Text © 2004 by Mel Bradshaw

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.

Cover art: Edward Burne-Jones (British, 1833-1898),
Portrait of Caroline Fitzgerald
, 1884, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 × 20 1/2 in. (82.9 × 52.1 cm). Collection/courtesy of the University of Toronto, University of Toronto Art Centre. Photograph: Brenda Dereniuk, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Napoleon Publishing acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for our publishing program

We acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation's Ontario Book Initiative

Published by RendezVous Press

a division of Transmedia Enterprises Inc.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

08 07 06 05 04     5 4 3 2

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Bradshaw, Mel, 1947-

Death in the age of steam / Mel Bradshaw.

ISBN 1-894917-00-6

I. Title.

PS8553.R2315D43 2004



For Carol Jackson, with all my love

Strange, and passing strange, that the relation between the two sexes, the passion of love in short, should not be taken into deeper consideration by our teachers and our legislators. People educate and legislate as if there were no such thing in the world; but ask the priest, ask the physician—let
reveal the amount of moral and physical results from this one cause. Must love always be discussed in blank verse, as if it were a thing to be played in tragedies or sung in songs—a subject for pretty poems and wicked novels, and had nothing to do with the prosaic current of our every-day existence, our moral welfare and eternal salvation? Must love be ever treated with profaneness, as a mere illusion? or with coarseness, as a mere impulse? or with fear, as a mere disease? or with shame, as a mere weakness? or with levity, as a mere accident? Whereas it is a great mystery and a great necessity, lying at the foundation of human existence, morality, and happiness; mysterious, universal, inevitable as death. Why then should love be treated less seriously than death? It is a serious thing . . .

—Anna Brownell Jameson,
Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada

Prologue: The Departed

Now he had to face her.

A last hymn had been sung. The organ continued playing “Holy, Holy, Holy” at a reflective tempo while the mourners edged into the aisles.

Isaac Harris held back a moment before joining the stream jostling its way to the front of the church to pay its condolences. The young bank cashier exceeded average height by some inches, but not by enough to see the dead man's family over the sea of black bonnets. How did she look? Harris would have liked to have caught at least a glimpse of Theresa before their meeting. Normally impatient of crowds, he was grateful today for their shuffling slowness—grateful even for their distracting aromas of rosewater, sweat, stain remover, insect repellent and hair oil. He had no idea what he was going to say.

He inched forward on feet that felt too big and out of step, all the more awkward because he had had so little experience of funerals. Just last week, his subordinate at the Toronto branch of the Provincial Bank, a gloomy man of riper years, had told him he had “a brow untouched by sorrow”—his good fortune made to sound like a reproach. Harris had been pleased, though. He had reported his accountant's words to Jasper Small, who liked to twit Harris on his long, earnest face.

Even had he been as inured to death as an old undertaker, however, and as well-stocked with platitudes to send sliding off the tongue, Harris would have had to think about whether to come today. He
thought, at some length.

It would have been shabby not to come, of course. Since Reform statesman Robert Baldwin had retired, there was no
one in public life Harris respected more than William Sheridan. Not only had Sheridan been a Member of Parliament up until his death, but he had held cabinet rank in 1849 when the Great Ministry of Baldwin and Lafontaine had finally established the principle of responsible government. “So decisive has been the Reformers' victory,” a eulogist had observed during the service, “that today in 1856 it feels like much more than seven years since Canada put the constitutional issue behind her, once and for all.”

Since boyhood, Harris had known Sheridan by reputation, but the link between them was much closer than that. In adult life he had taken him legal work, dined at his table, courted his Theresa. He had seen Sheridan's massive, snowy head nod in approbation of a well-argued point, and seen it tremble with rage at corruption or callousness.

Sheridan had all his life stood up against oligarchy, yet never abandoned his faith in British institutions. He would have nothing to do with the Rebellions of 1837. His weapons had been reason and invective, not pikes and muskets. A passionate but essentially orderly man, and still needed.

Plainly, the place for Harris this Tuesday afternoon was the Church of the Holy Trinity. There were not only his personal feelings of grief and admiration to consider, but also the need for as strong a demonstration of support as possible for the integrity Sheridan had stood for.

On the other hand, if he went, Harris would have to meet Theresa for the first time since her marriage. It had not been easy in a city of a mere forty thousand to avoid her without calling too much attention to the fact. To avoid her at her own father's funeral would be impossible.

He would have to comfort her. Though resolute enough in most emergencies, he could not begin to think how he would manage. The three-year separation would have made them strangers, and bereavement have made her a stranger to herself. Even as mistress of her own separate establishment, she must feel the death as an amputation—for, whatever his public virtues, the deceased had been no less a devoted and adored father. His
wife and son having died in Theresa's infancy, William Sheridan had in fact been both parents to his only child. And she had been to him not just daughter but companion.

Harris did not know how to meet her in such circumstances, and yet, rehearsing the circumstances awakened in him the protectiveness that would draw him to her. Her rejected champion, but her champion all the same.

When he reached the south transept, however, Theresa was not there. Henry Crane—florid, portly and imposing—stood alone by the carved stone baptismal font, receiving expressions of sympathy on behalf of the family.

Harris could not help stiffening in the presence of Theresa's husband and was about to introduce himself when the other said, “Isaac, very good of you to come.”

“Is Mrs. Crane not here today?”

“She wasn't equal to this, poor woman.” Crane dropped his voice, which was marked like Harris's own with the native Canadian flatness. “I must have a word with you. Ride with me to the interment if you're free.”

Harris hesitated, but it seemed too odd a request to have been made without compelling reason. “Of course,” he said. “I'll wait for you outside.”

Harris left the church somewhat dazed. From what one read, death had not struck William Sheridan out of a clear sky. He was known to suffer from recurrent bouts of intestinal inflammation. One such had confined him to his room for the past week, and to this infirmity his physician plausibly enough had attributed his end. It seemed impossible then that Theresa had been prostrated by shock. She had never been susceptible to shocks, nor of a nervous temperament. She was a churchwoman besides and would have been drawn to these obsequies no less by faith than by affection. It followed that she must herself be seriously ill. Whereas a moment ago Harris had dreaded meeting her, he now asked nothing better than the assurance of his own eyes that she was out of harm's way. Perhaps Crane would permit a visit.

Filling the sun-drenched square, choking it almost, stood a hearse like none Harris had seen. It appeared to be a shop window rather than a conveyance of the dead, for its sides were broad sheets of costly plate glass, uncurtained, untinted, and bare of frosting or incised design. Through the glass could be seen a bed of sable carpeting. There the decoratively carved casket would presently lie naked to public admiration like an exhibit at the Crystal Palace. By contrast, the two pair of horses harnessed to it stood swathed in blankets of black velvet, invisible save for their eight black ears. A dozen undertaker's mutes with flowing black silk scarves tied around their top hats kept the curious at a distance from every polished surface of the rolling conservatory. No one could say this degree of ostentation was out of place at the passing of so public a figure, and yet the equipage was more St. James Cathedral than Holy Trinity Church, less Sheridan than Crane.

Harris reflected how hard it was for him to do justice to his former rival. Crane was not just a spender, after all, but a builder. Son of a Kingston hardware merchant, he had from the 1840s built steamboats, starting on the upper Great Lakes where the need was greatest. Although accidents had occurred, one fatal to his then partner, Crane had learned from each turn of events.

He had early championed propellers over paddles, which did poorly in rough water. He would supply either, though, of course, not actually making the boats himself but finding people to fashion them for any taste. You might have called him a steamboat promoter who in the fifties switched naturally to being a railway promoter. Personally or through subcontractors, Henry Crane could lay track, throw up bridges, secure government subsidies—anything you wanted in the railway department, and all in jig time. Nor had he given up on steamboats, which complemented the new lines. Toronto to Collingwood by rail, Collingwood to Chicago by water. He would soon find a way to put trains on steamboats. That would be the ultimate. Across the Detroit River, for example, or from his home town of Kingston to Cape Vincent, New York. It was just a matter of persuading
politicians to put money into transportation and to pass laws creating the right atmosphere.

Three years after Harris had last heard Crane expound his ideas, they still sounded prophetic. Like the steam-pump fire engine that would become practicable as soon as the city mains could be made to supply enough water.

Harris had met Crane at William Sheridan's Front Street villa. Sheridan had been in the cabinet at the time, and Crane badly wanted his support for a measure affecting the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway. Sheridan preferred to entertain him than to incur obligations by letting himself be entertained. “Convince me your bill serves the public interest,” he said after dinner. Crane tried. Such was Sheridan's prestige that Crane tried on several occasions. He spoke of the public interest. He spoke also, as Harris heard later, of resurveying the line of rail to make it run through Sheridan's York County riding to the benefit of Sheridan's constituents. Sheridan remained courteous, but unpersuaded. So Crane's strategy changed. Such was Sheridan's prestige, after all, that any alliance with him would reflect credit on Crane. Sheridan's daughter, moreover, was a lively and most ornamental young woman. Having come to lobby, he stayed to woo—and, unhappily for Harris, Crane's powers of persuasion didn't fail him twice running.

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