Mrs. Dempster’s wanderings came to an end on Friday, the 24th of October 1913. It was almost ten o’clock at night and I was reading by the stove, as was my father; my mother sewed—something for the Mission Circle bazaar—and Willie was at a practice of a Youth Band a local enthusiast had organized; Willie played the cornet and had his eye on the first flute, one Ada Blake. When the knock came at the door my father went, and after some quiet muttering asked the callers to come in while he put on his boots. They were Jim Warren, who was our part-time village policeman, and George and Garnet Harper, a couple of practical jokers who on this occasion looked unwontedly solemn.
“Mary Dempster’s disappeared,” my father explained. “Jim’s organizing a hunt.”
“Yep, been gone since after supper,” said the policeman. “Reverend come home at nine and she was gone. Nowheres round the town, and now we’re goin’ to search the pit. If she’s not there we’ll have to drag the river.”
“You’d better go along with your father,” said my mother to me. “I’ll get right over to Dempsters’ and keep an eye on Paul, and be ready when you bring her home.”
Much was implied in that speech. In the instant my mother had acknowledged me as a man, fit to go on serious business. She had shown also that she knew that I was as concerned about the Dempsters, perhaps, as herself; there had been no questions about why I had not been going there to do the chores for the past few months. I am sure my parents knew Amasa Dempster had warned me away and had assumed that it was part of the crazy pride and self-sufficiency that had been growing on him. But if Mrs. Dempster was lost at night, all daylight considerations must be set aside. There was a good deal of the pioneer left in people in those days, and they knew what was serious.
I darted off to get the flashlight; my father had recently bought a car—rather a daring thing in Deptford at that time—and a large flashlight was kept in the tool-kit on the runningboard, in case we should be benighted with a flat tire.
We made for the pit, where ten or twelve men were already assembled. I was surprised to see Mr. Mahaffey, our magistrate, among them. He and the policeman were our law, and his presence meant grave public concern.
This gravel pit was of unusual importance to our village because it completely blocked any normal extension of streets or houses on our western side; thus it was a source of indignation to our village council. However, it belonged to the railway company, which valued it as a source of the gravel they needed for keeping their roadbed in order, and which they excavated and hauled considerable distances up and down the track. How big it was I do not accurately know, but it was big, and prejudice made it seem bigger. It was not worked consistently and so was often undisturbed for a year or more at a time; in it there were pools, caused by seepage from the river, which it bordered, and a lot of scrub growth, sumac, sallow, Manitoba maple, and such unprofitable things, as well as goldenrod and kindred trashy weeds.
Mothers hated it because sometimes little children strayed into it and were hurt, and big children sneaked into it and met the like of Mabel Heighington. But most of all it was disliked because it was a refuge for the tramps who rode the rods of the railway. Some of these were husky young fellows; others were old men, or men who seemed old, in ragged greatcoats belted with a piece of rope or a strap, wearing hats of terrible dilapidation, and giving off a stench of feet, sweat, faeces, and urine that would have staggered a goat. They were mighty drinkers of flavouring extracts and liniments that had a heavy alcohol base. All of them were likely to appear at a back door and ask for food. In their eyes was the dazed, stunned look of people who live too much in the open air without eating properly. They were generally given food and generally feared as lawless men.
In later life I have been sometimes praised, sometimes mocked, for my way of pointing out the mythical elements that seem to me to underlie our apparently ordinary lives. Certainly that cast of mind had some of its origin in our pit, which had much the character of a Protestant Hell. I was probably the most entranced listener to a sermon the Reverend Andrew Bowyer preached about Gehenna, the hateful valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, where outcasts lived, and where their flickering fires, seen from the city walls, may have given rise to the idea of a hell of perpetual burning. He liked to make his hearers jump, now and then, and he said that our gravel pit was much the same sort of place as Gehenna. My elders thought this far-fetched, but I saw no reason then why hell should not have, so to speak, visible branch establishments throughout the earth, and I have visited quite a few of them since.
Under the direction of Jim Warren and Mr. Mahaffey it was agreed that fifteen of us would scramble down into the pit and form a line, leaving twenty or thirty feet between each man, and advance from end to end. Anybody who found a clue was to give a shout. As we searched there was quite a lot of sound, for I think most of the men wanted any tramps to know we were coming and get out of the way; nobody liked the idea of coming on a tramps’ bivouac—they were called “jungles”, which made them seem more terrible—unexpectedly. We had seen only two fires, at the far end of the pit, but there could be quite a group of tramps without a fire.
My father was thirty feet on my left. and a big fellow named Ed Hainey on my right, as I walked through the pit. In spite of the nearness of the men it was lonely work, and though there was a moon it was waning and the light was poor. I was afraid and did not know what I feared, which is the worst kind of fear. We might have gone a quarter of a mile when I came to a clump of sallow. I was about to skirt it when I heard a stirring inside it. I made a sound—I am sure it was not a yell—that brought my father beside me in an instant. He shot the beam of his flashlight into the scrub, and in that bleak, flat light we saw a tramp and a woman in the act of copulation. The tramp rolled over and gaped at us in terror; the woman was Mrs. Dempster.
It was Hainey who gave a shout, and in no time all the men were with us, and Jim Warren was pointing a pistol at the tramp, ordering him to put his hands up. He repeated the words two or three times, and then Mrs. Dempster spoke.
“You’ll have to speak very loudly to him, Mr. Warren,” she said, “he’s hard of hearing.”
I don’t think any of us knew where to look when she spoke, pulling her skirts down but remaining on the ground. It was at that moment that the Reverend Amasa Dempster joined us; I had not noticed him when the hunt began, though he must have been there. He behaved with great dignity, leaning forward to help his wife rise with the same sort of protective love I had seen in him the night Paul was born. But he was not able to keep back his question.
“Mary, what made you do it?”
She looked him honestly in the face and gave the answer that became famous in Deptford: “He was very civil, ‘Masa. And he wanted it so badly.”
He put her arm under his and set out for home, just as if they were going for a walk. Under Mr. Mahaffey’s direction, Jim Warren took the tramp off to the lock-up. The rest of us dispersed without a word.