Claire McKenzie fluttered about her room in a nervous panic, her face flushed with excitement as she hurriedly made her preparations. Everything had to be perfect; it just had to! The seventeen-year-old had never felt this way before, and as her blood pounded in her veins, she wondered if she would explode with exhilaration.
A glance in the large mirror above her vanity showed a rosiness in her cheeks; she forced herself to control herself, to make tonight appear to be just like any other night. When the beating of her heart had sufficiently faded from her ears, she calmly opened her door and went downstairs.
The living room where her father was relaxing was immaculate, as always; in the twelve years she had lived in this mansion, Claire had never seen a speck of dust remain for more than three and a half minutes before being banished by her mother. "A lady's house should always remain spick-and-span," Mrs. McKenzie had once told a young Claire, when she had asked if they couldn't skip the cleaning just once, and that was the end of it. The young Claire had not even tried appealing to her father for leniacy; Ian McKenzie might be a respected minister in the Houses of Parliament, but in this house, there was no doubt who was in power.
Mr. McKenzie did not even glance up from his favourite reading chair when Claire came in. Faint smoke from his pipe hung in a cloud above his balding head, only partially obscuring the view of the city of Hull across the Ottawa River, beyond the huge picture window. Claire's eyes darted around the room, looking at the elegant furniture, the polished brass door handles, even at the paper her father was reading, the banner of the Ottawa Free Press, dated October 20, 1915, barely noticeable above a photograph of some shell-strewed European city. She tried to look anywhere but at the clock above the mantlepiece; when her glance was finally torn in that direction, it showed nearly an hour left before her parents were to leave, for whatever social event was marked on their calendar. She wondered if she could survive that long, and the half hour after that, until Marc came.
Claire had been struck by him the first moment she had seen him, making deliveries of lumber at a house just down from the McKenzie's Cliff Street home. He was a oddity here, in this fashionable area of Ottawa, where only the best people lived overlooking the River, just west of "The Hill". He was one of the workers rebuilding the Cash house during the summer; Claire had been impressed at first by how he conducted the two horses pulling lumber down the dirt street every second morning, making them respond to his French-accented commands. She had been awed with the way his muscles rippled beneath his shirt as he struggled along; soon, she found herself sitting outside every day at precisely the time he went by. By the time June transformed into July, she was quite convinced she was in love.
Discreet inquiries brought her some insight on the man she was so enraptured with; each new bit of information was like a jewel of forbidden knowledge. Yet when the mid-point of summer came, she knew little more than his name and occupation. Marc Lemieux was a twenty year old unschooled worker who lived alone with his mother, a passionate Quebecker who spoke no English. He made little money; the war-time economy was an unpleasant contrast to the prosperous years before 1914. Thus, she should not have been surprised when the Cliff street job ended just as August began, and Marc's daily trips past her front porch ended. Without the sight of him every day, Claire grew melancholic. For days she moped about, her youthful gaiety gone. She increasingly found herself walking moodily along Lover's Lane, the shaded walkway at the base of the Parliament Buildings. She dreamt of him, of hearing his voice, of walking hand in hand with him in this romantic spot, of knowing the feeling of kissing him...she dreamt of many things. She softly began whispering his name, caught up in her fantasies.
"You should not walk alone down here, Mademoiselle." It took a second for the voice to penetrate her thoughts; she spun around quickly, startled, to see the young man she'd just been dreaming about standing right there behind her. Her heart pounded, and she wondered if she should run away or just die where she stood.
"Je m'excuse; did I startle you?" he said, uncertainly. Claire shook her head.
"No," she said, her voice cracking. "No."
He came closer, until he stood beside her. "A lady like yourself should not be here alone; there are people here who make it unsafe." His blue eyes shone under the green-tinted afternoon sunlight, which filtered down through the trees. Suddenly he smiled. "Bonjour. I am Marc Lemieux." He held out his hand.
"I know," Claire almost said, but instead changed it to, "I am Claire McKenzie." She offered her own hand; his was remarkably smooth and free of callouses for a working man as he brought hers up to his lips. Claire's whole arm tingled as he kissed it.
What he said of her safety was true; she had heard several accounts of assaults in this shady, badly-lit area. "Allow me to escort you back, Mademoiselle McKenzie," he said. After a moment's hesitation, she took the proffered arm.
After one more chance encounter there, they met there regularly, as often as she could without raising suspicion. After all, it was not proper for a young lady to venture outside unaccompanied, with no errands to run.
For two and a half months now, they had met in secret, always far away from where prying parental eyes could see. But when the Right Honourable Mr. McKenzie had announced to his only daughter that he and his wife would be going out to "an important social function" and would be gone most of the evening, Claire had invited Marc to visit. She looked forward to entertaining him in the huge, empty house that night...yet was more than slightly frightened at the prospect, as well.
"Claire! Claire, pay attention!"
Slowly, Claire realized her mother was speaking to her. "I beg your pardon, Mother, I was thinking of...something. You were saying?"
"Before I say anything, sit up properly, young lady! Your posture is terrible!" Claire quickly straightened her spine on the couch; she hid a snicker when she saw her father doing the same.
"It's disgraceful the way some young people are behaving these days," Mrs. McKenzie continued to herself. "What is the world coming to? Why, walking down Wellington Street today, I saw a girl barely Claire's age wearing the shortest skirt I've ever seen. It must have been only two inches below the knees! What kind of mother would let a daughter go out half-dressed like that? It's disgraceful!" The tirade over, she once again addressed her daughter. "Now, Claire, if you had been paying attention to your mother, I said your father and I have a surprise for you tonight."
Claire looked up; she wondered why her heart was beating faster. "A surprise, Mother?"
Mrs. McKenzie glared at her daughter for interrupting. "Yes, dear. I met an old friend of yours the other day on Bank Street, walking with his mother. It was David Baldwin...."
Claire suppressed a shudder. David Baldwin was the son of a deputy minister who happened to be a good friend of Mr. McKenzie; David also happened to be an idiot, in Claire's opinion. In the opinion of her parents, he was "a fine young man, who you should really get to know better, Claire." At twenty-two, he worked at the Royal Canadian Bank, where he was "quite important", as he continually reminded anyone who would listen. He was also quite enamoured with the younger Claire; on the many times their parents had attempted to get them together, Claire had either been bored to tears with his stories, or was busy fending off his probing hands when they were alone.
"How long has it been since you've seen David, Claire?" Before Claire could respond, Mrs. McKenzie continued. "Yes, exactly: far too long. Therefore, I invited their entire family over for dinner tonight, as a special treat." She smiled at Claire. "Are you surprised, Claire?"
The look on Claire's face showed she was much more than surprised. "But, Mother..." she stammered, "you and Father were to go out this evening!"
"Oh, but that was part of the surprise, dear!" She chuckled. "Now, hurry and get yourself ready, Claire; they'll be here within the hour." Mrs. McKenzie retreated to the kitchen to supervise dinner, smiling happily at her little scheme.
In her room, Claire tried to steady herself. There was too little time to warn Marc not to come; she could only hope that when he saw the horse-and-buggy tethered in the driveway, he would realize what had happened. She stayed in her room, even as she heard the Baldwin family arrive. The hushed whisperings of her mother and Mrs. Baldwin could be heard clearly; "Was she surprised?" one high-pitched voice asked. "Oh, but Kathryn, you should have seen her face!"
* * * * * * * * * *
Thirty minutes later Claire sat on the couch beside David, looking as if she preferred to be some place less painful, like a dentist's office. Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Baldwin were discussing the war, of course, while the women puttered about in the kitchen, giving Helen, the cook, directions. It was shaping up to be a classic social occasion, one which would easily find its way into the pages of the Citizen's Social Notes the next day.
And then there was a knock at the door. Claire wished she could disappear into the cushions of the sofa. The women entered the living room, questioning looks on their faces.
Helen answered the door. "You want to see Miss Claire?" came her surprised voice dimly from the front hall. All conversation in the living room stopped. A male voice, heavy with a french accent, could be heard replying in the affirmative.
Very slowly, all eyes in the room turned silently onto Claire.
* * * * * * * * * *
Claire had never heard her parents so angry. She listened without saying a word as they berated her downstairs, as soon as the guests had left, about her foolish and irresponsible behaviour. About how the daughter of a Minister of Parliament could not be seen with an almost illiterate French common-class worker. About how they had a reputation to protect, and how Claire must protect that reputation, for them and for the sake of Canada. "How can you ever stand in the presence of people like Sir Robert ever again?" She sat through it all, never saying a word, never changing the stony expression on her face.
Her parents left the living room, the echo of their mandate not to see Marc again still bouncing off the walls as they slammed the doors.
Very quietly, Claire started to cry.
* * * * * * * * * *
Three weeks passed before Claire found the courage to ask permission to see Marc. She had thought that if she waited long enough, her parents would let her make her own choices; Mrs. McKenzie's scream of outrage at the request told her she was wrong.
"Diana," Ian McKenzie had began after his daughter had rushed from the room, "Diana, perhaps we should give Claire's friend a chance." Where upon Mrs. McKenzie had politely suggested if he had gone insane. Ian listened to his long-winded wife without comment until she sputtered to a stop.
"She's old enough to decide for herself, Diana," he suggested calmly.
Mrs. McKenzie's cold glare lowered the temperature ten degrees. "I will not have my daughter turn down a handsome, respectable, interested man for that French illiterate peasant!"
As usual, hers was the last word.
With that peculiar Ottawa tendency for the weather to match the mood, the temperature soon sank to sub-zero, bringing the mountains of snow that Canada was famous for. On November 12, the city was paralysed with the amount of snow in the streets. All the men who weren't off fighting the war fought the elements, being paid ten cents an hour to shovel snow into the back of horse-drawn carriages. For almost a week, it was a regular sight to see the horses heading west on Wellington, past the Chateau and The Hill, to dump their loads into the river by Bronson Avenue. The appalling weather, combined with Marc's absence, threw Claire into despondency. More than once she considered throwing herself from the high cliff just behind her house, into the icy Ottawa River below. To make matters worse, David Baldwin was coming over with sickening frequency, much to the pleasure of the parents and the gossip watchers in the Citizen. David seemed to thrive on the attention, becoming bolder with each encounter, so much so that Claire searched for any excuse not to see him. Yet she could find no excuse not to attend the Chateau Laurier ball with him at the end of November.
The moonlight bounced off the snow as the Baldwin automobile headed towards the Chateau. It was only a ten minute walk from Claire's house to the hotel's ballroom, but David insisted on showing off his new toy. Horse and buggy was still the most common means of transport in Ottawa, but Henry Ford's horseless carriage was becoming more familiar, though most couldn't afford it.
The gala event was one that would be talked about for years to come. Besides the Prime Minister and most of the cabinet, several prominent businessmen were present. Even the Governor-General, Prince Arthur, was seen. Yet the festive mood had no effect on Claire; after dancing with David for the fifth time, she was growing almost sick. She told him she was leaving for home.
"But it's still early!" he protested. "I haven't even met Sir Robert yet!"
"You can stay if you want, David," Claire said tiredly, and she almost hoped he would. But he relented, and went to gather their coats, an odd look on his face as they the hall.
He pulled her to a stop in the main lobby before they exited. Only a few people catching their breath were there. "I want to ask you something, Claire," David began, holding her hand. "I've already asked permission from your father, and he approves, so this will make it official..."
Claire stared, confused, as David pulled out a small box from his pocket. A gleaming ring was revealed when he opened it, and her breath caught. With the ancient chandelier above them, and the faint elegant music coming from the ballroom, it seemed to be a scene from a dream..or a nightmare...
"Claire Eugenie McKenzie," David said formally, "will you become my wife?" He found himself grinning, already picturing the grand wedding...
"Oh, David...are you serious?" Claire found herself having trouble breathing. David was handsome, true, and she had known he liked her...but marriage? The proposal so shocked her that she found herself considering it. After all, she had heard girls her age (and some considerably older) proclaim how lucky she was to have David as a gentleman caller. And at eighteen, she was more than old enough to begin a family of her own...
She suddenly remembered who she was thinking about. David was a jerk. She couldn't stand spending the rest of the ball with him... how could she expect to live with him for the rest of her life?
"Why me, David? There are plenty of girls who would want to marry you..."
"I don't want them...I want you, Claire!" David's eyes were bright. "Claire, just say, `Yes, I'll marry you!'"
Claire slowly withdrew her hand. "No...I won't."
David was staggered. With all the plans he had made, all the money he had spent, he had never considered Claire might say no. He had pictured marrying her for so long that any other scenario was impossible...yet here she was, having just said no, and was even now leaving through the great revolving door. He hurried to catch up, trying to figure where he went wrong. "There must be someone else," he concluded to himself. "That Frenchie of hers! It must be him!" A solution presented itself to David: get rid of that Frog, and Claire will be mine!
The lights of the village of Hull across the river were almost lost in the bright moonlight. The air was crisp and cool, but not cold; nevertheless, Claire shivered as David opened the car door for her, and impatiently waited as he turned the starter.
They drove in silence to Cliff Street; few lights were on, as everyone was at the Chateau, and would be for several more hours. She waited for David to open the door for her when the car stopped; instead, he turned off the motor and sat there, looking at her. Shaking her head, she started to open the door herself, but was stopped when David grabbed her arm.
"Good night, David," Claire said, trying to extract herself from his grip. David's grasp intensified, hurting her arm.
"Don't leave so fast, Claire, my dear," David said in an odd tone. "It isn't polite."
Claire tried harder to free herself; with a vicious jerk, David pulled her across the front seat. "Not so fast, my dear," he repeated, now grabbing both her arms and pressing her down. Claire, shocked, began yelling, but David continued his attack. The smell of alcohol was heavy on his breath. Using his weight to pin her, he pressed his lips against hers, her struggles arousing him even more. Panting with excitement at what was to come, he slid an arm under her heavy coat....
Suddenly, a blast of cold air burst into the warm car as the driver's door opened. David felt a hand on his shoulder, violently wrenching him from the seat, banging his head on the sharp metal overhead before being thrown into the freezing snowbank.
Blinded by the snow and blood, David couldn't see who Claire's rescuer was, but the fact he was in the McKenzie driveway left little doubt as to his identity. "Don't hit me, Mr. McKenzie!" he tried to mumble. The taste of warm blood filled his mouth, obscuring his words. "Don't hit me, it's not what it seems..." He tried to stand, wiping his face. He heard Claire being consoled as she stood on the opposite side of the car. David realized the french-accented voice was not Mr. McKenzie. The sight of Claire in Marc Lemieux's arms infuriated David, made him forget his pain. He stumbled around to them, ready to fight. Claire looked up, frightened.
"Get the hell out of here!" David wasn't sure who said the words; he was only aware of swinging at Marc, and of the younger man sending him flying backwards onto the ground. David was knocked down three more times before he had enough sense to leave, his blood dripping like a fountain from his lips and nose.
* * * * * * * * * *
David denied Claire's claims; even her parents preferred his version of the story, that he had been attacked by Marc Lemieux (who had a knife, a gun, and bayonet, according to David) and Claire had simply gotten in the way of his brave actions. Thanks to David, Marc found himself fired from his job within two days. Claire refused to see David again, but Marc had to leave the city, in order to find work to support his mother. He wasn't sure where he would go, or if he'd come back. The McKenzies at first found that they were not as welcomed around town; there were even rumours that Sir Robert Borden would ask Ian McKenzie not to run in the next election, but by Christmas, the entire incident was forgotten as the next scandal replaced it. In fact, by the time the new year came, the only reminder of the whole affair was David Baldwin's somewhat abnormal, excessive behaviour. Even Claire's parents did not pressure her into seeing David; they seemed to accept her right to live her life for herself.
Claire found herself thinking of Marc less often every day, but she didn't really believe that she'd never see him again.
Life had returned to normal quickly. By the first of February, 1916, though only two months after David Baldwin's "proposal", Claire was surprised by a package in the mail at the post office: Marc Lemieux himself. She jumped with joy at the sight of his familiar features, and fell in love again at the sound of his voice. He had found a job in Montreal as a construction foreman; he was on four day's holiday, between projects, and was organizing his finances with respect to his mother. His salary was not especially lucrative, but enabled him to send several dollars a week to his mother.
Claire didn't know how her parents would react to her being with Marc now; they decided to enjoy the few days they had, before he had to return to Montreal.
Claire didn't think her feet touched the ground the next three days when she was with Marc. She spent every available second spent with him; even that seemed too short a time.
Marc had to board his eight-o'clock train the morning of the fourth of February; Claire decided not to go home the night of the third. She made up a story for her parents, not caring if they believed it or not. At seven-thirty, she found herself once again walking hand in hand with Marc along the River at the base of the Parliament Buildings. The always-dim Lover's Lane was especially dark now, the sun having set long before. Only the slightest scar of brightness showed above the western horizon; the great bulk of the Library could be seen above the leafless trees. Claire slipped on a patch of ice, and steadied herself with Marc's strong arm.
"It is not safe here, Mademoiselle," Marc joked, repeating his first words to her. "It is good you are not alone." He bent over and they kissed. Claire felt her pulse pounding through her body; she had never felt like this before. She nestled closer to Marc as the brisk February wind rustled by them, shaking the trees.
"I'm freezing," she shuddered, then smiled coyly. "Any ideas on how we could keep warm?" His whispered answer made her laugh.
Claire gestured to the dim outline of the Parliament Buildings above them. "Let's go in there to get warm; I know the library clerk, he'll let us in." Snuggled up against each other, they retraced their steps to the stairs and started up the steep incline, not noticing the figure following them, cloaked in shadows.
It was almost too easy to enter the Library, but as they infiltrated the huge empty room, Marc grew uncomfortable. "What's the matter?" Claire asked teasingly. "Afraid of the books?" Marc smiled. "This is what they call a library, Marc," she continued, making him laugh.
"How dumb do you think I am, Claire?"
She thought about it for a moment as he stroked her hair. "Pretty dumb."
Marc looked insulted. "I'm not dumb!" he protested, and tried to recite something to prove it. He cleared his throat. "`To be, or not'...uhmm, `to be, or three may not be...'"
Claire's laughter echoed throughout the chamber. "I rest my case."
"If I were dumb," Mark began, "would I know that the floor here is laid in an intricate pattern of oak, ash, cherry, and...and walnut?"
"This man knows his woods."
"If you raise your eyes, Claire dear, you'll see around you the coats of arms of the provinces. The panelling is of white pine. Of the hundreds of hand-carved gorgons and crests, no two are exactly alike."
Claire's mouth fell open.
"The overall style of the library," he continued, "is in Italian Gothic. There are approximately 121,242 volumes contained here. The statue of Queen Victoria in the centre there was carved in 1871 by Marshall Wood, at the request of..."
"Marc...how'd you know all this?"
Marc looked sheepish. "You don't know it, but...I've started to read. I like it...Books are the future." He grinned at her confused expression. "I guess I'm full of surprises."
Claire lifted her sweater over her head and threw it over with their jackets. "So am I."
Marc gazed at her as she moved closer, struck again by her beauty.
A maniacal laugh echoed through the chamber. "No!" the voice cried. "No!"
Claire and Marc sprang apart guiltily, believing they had been discovered by one of the ministers still working at nine at night. A unrecognized human form stood next to the doorway.
"She's mine, Lemieux," the voice said unevenly. The figure stepped out into the light, finally identifying itself as David Baldwin. His outstretched arm contained a gun pointed at Marc's chest.
"David..." Claire said helplessly, noticing the deranged look in his eyes. "What are you doing?"
"I'm doing this for you," David said, his voice high-pitched. Sweat fairly poured from his face. "You're mine, now...he won't have you any more." A thin wisp of smoke crawled into the room past the open door. "You're going to die, you french bastard, in a blaze of shame!"
Marc and Claire could only stand and listen as the madman gleefully told them he had been following her for weeks, always just out of sight. And now, they would all die in the fire he had set in the Commons Reading Room. "And then she'll be mine!"
David's plan had its holes in it, besides the fact that both he and Claire would be dead, thus pretty much cutting off much chance for a meaningful relationship. If this thought had occurred to David, he didn't show it.
Smoke was now pouring into the room at an alarming rate; David turned towards it in triumph. "Soon, it will be over, and....oomph!"
His victory speech was cut off as Marc slammed him into the wall. The gun clattered to the floor, just as the corridor outside burst into flame.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ian McKenzie was preparing for bed; he took a long moment to gaze out his bedroom's east window to the Parliament Buildings, as he always did before he retired for the evening. He saw a dim red glow at the base of the central tower, but it took several moments for realization to dawn on him.
"Fire!" he shouted. "Fire on the Hill!" Pulling on his trousers, he joined the throng of people rushing towards the sight. He bumped into a man running from the Chateau towards the Centre Block. In the dim light, Mr. McKenzie recognized Mederic Martin.
"Mr. Mayor, what happened?"
The large man wiped soot from his face. "It started in the reading room," he said. "I've just called my boys in Montreal to send some help for Chief Graham." Already Graham and the rest of the brigade were pouring tons of water onto the "unburnable" building.
"Father!" a voice called. Mr. McKenzie turned to see his daughter rushing towards him.
"Claire! Are you all right?" Sobbing, she told him what happened, how Marc had closed the fire door to the library before pulling her and the unconscious David Baldwin outside to safety.
Ian McKenzie stared at Marc in the flickering light of the fire. He felt tears running down his cheeks- the result of the smoke, he would try to convince himself later.
"You've saved my daughter," he said wonderingly. Very slowly, he extended his hand to the great hulking Frenchman. A grin on his face, Marc shook it firmly.
Claire didn't know what the future would bring, what her mother would say or do, but for now, they were together, and they were safe.