The Stars Shine Down(6)


by Sidney Sheldon

When James Cameron broke the news to Peggy, she was dismayed. "We don't know anything about running a boardinghouse, James."

"We'll learn. We'll share the work."

And she had believed him. "All right. We'll manage," she said.

And in their own fashion they had managed.

Over the years, several opportunities had come along for James Cameron to get better jobs, employment that would give him dignity and more money, but he was enjoying his failure too much to leave it.

"Why bother?" he would grumble. "When Fate's agin you, naething guid can happen."

And now, on this September night, he thought, They won't even let me enjoy my whores in peace. God damn my wife.

When he stepped out of Madam Kirstie's establishment, a chilly September wind was blowing.

I'd best fortify myself for the troubles aheid, James Cameron decided. He stopped in at the Ancient Mariner.

One hour later he wandered toward the boardinghouse in New Aberdeen, the poorest section of Glace Bay.

When he finally arrived, half a dozen boarders were anxiously waiting for him.

"The doctor is in wi' Peggy," one of the men said. "You'd better hurry, mon."

James staggered into the tiny, dreary back bedroom he and his wife shared. From another room he could hear the whimpering of a newborn baby. Peggy lay on the bed, motionless. Dr. Patrick Duncan was leaning over her. He turned as he heard James enter.

"Wass goin' on here?" James asked.

The doctor straightened up and looked at James with distaste. "You should have had your wife come to see me," he said.

"And throw guid money away? She's only haein' a baby. Wass the big...?"

"Peggy's dead. I did everything I could. She had twins. I couldn't save the boy."

"Oh, Jesus," James Cameron whimpered. "It's the Fates agin."

"What?"

"The Fates. They've always been agin me. Now they've taine my bairn frae me. I dinna..."

A nurse walked in, carrying a tiny baby wrapped in a blanket. "This is your daughter, Mr. Cameron."

"A daughter? Wha' the hell will I dae wi' a daughter?" His speech was becoming more slurred.

"You disgust me, mon," Dr. Duncan said.

The nurse turned to James. "I'll stay until tomorrow and show you how to take care of her."

James Cameron looked at the tiny, wrinkled bundle in the blanket and thought, hopefully: Maybe she'll die, too.

For the first three weeks no one was sure whether the baby would live or not. A wet nurse came in to tend to her. And finally, the day came when the doctor was able to say, "Your daughter is going to live."

And he looked at James Cameron and said under his breath, "God have mercy on the poor child."

The wet nurse said, "Mr. Cameron, you must give the child a name."

"I dinna care wha' the hell ye call it. Ye gie her a name."

"Why don't we name her Lara? That's such a pretty..."

"Suit your bloody self."

And so she was christened Lara.

There was no one in Lara's life to care for her or nurture her. The boardinghouse was filled with men too busy with their own lives to pay attention to the baby. The only woman around was Bertha, the huge Swede who was hired to do the cooking and handle the chores.

James Cameron was determined to have nothing to do with his daughter. The damned Fates had betrayed him once again by letting her live. At night he would sit in the living room with his bottle of whiskey and complain. "The bairn murdered my wife and my son."

"You shouldn't say that, James."

"Weel, it's sae. My son would hae grown up to be a big strapping mon. He would hae been smart and rich and taine good care of his father in his auld age."

And the boarders let him ramble on.

James Cameron tried several times to get in touch with Maxwell, his father-in-law, hoping he would take the child off his hands, but the old man had disappeared. It would be just my luck the auld fool's daid, he thought.

Glace Bay was a town of transients who moved in and out of the boardinghouses. They came from France and China and the Ukraine. They were Italian and Irish and Greek, carpenters and tailors and plumbers and shoemakers. They swarmed into lower Main Street, Bell Street, North Street, and Water Street, near the waterfront area. They came to work the mines and cut timber and fish the seas. Glace Bay was a frontier town, primitive and rugged. The weather was an abomination. The winters were harsh with heavy snowfalls that lasted until April, and because of the heavy ice in the harbor, even April and May were cold and windy, and from July to October it rained.

There were eighteen boardinghouses in town, some of them accommodating as many as seventy-two guests. At the boardinghouse managed by James Cameron, there were twenty-four boarders, most of them Scotsmen.

Lara was hungry for affection, without knowing what the hunger was. She had no toys or dolls to cherish nor any playmates. She had no one except her father. She made childish little gifts for him, desperate to please him, but he either ignored or ridiculed them.

When Lara was five years old, she overheard her father say to one of the boarders, "The wrong child died, ye ken. My son is the one who should hae lived."

That night Lara cried herself to sleep. She loved her father so much. And she hated him so much.

When Lara was six, she resembled a Keane painting, enormous eyes in a pale, thin face. That year a new boarder moved in. His name was Mungo McSween, and he was a huge bear of a man. He felt an instant affection for the little girl.

"What's your name, wee lassie?"

"Lara."

"Ah. 'Tis a braw name for a braw bairn. Dae ye gan to school then?"

"School? No."

"And why not?"

"I don't know."

"Weel, we maun find out."

And he went to find James Cameron. "I'm tauld your bairn daes nae gae to school."

"And why should she? She's only a girl. She dinna need no school."

"You're wrong, mon. She maun have an education. She maun be gien a chance in life."

"Forget it," James said. "It wad be a waste."

But McSween was insistent, and finally, to shut him up, James Cameron agreed. It would keep the brat out of his sight for a few hours.

Lara was terrified by the idea of going to school. She had lived in a world of adults all her short life, and had had almost no contact with other children.