The Topher

by Graham Cotter

Chapter Thirteen

Wild Raspberry Rose

Illustration by Audrey Caryi

Illustration by Audrey Caryi

“And,” said Linda, “We could have been killed if the soldiers had started firing.”

She was telling the Topher about their adventure and about her worries about safety.

“Or,” said the Topher, “if Mr. McQuoid had been driving fast, you both would have been killed.”

“Don’t talk about killing,” whined Debbie, “People don’t get killed doing what we we’re doing.”

“Ever done it before?”

“Down on the rock before the `splosion!”

“That was a dream, Debbie, how often do I have to tell you?”

Linda was irritated with her sister, as usual.

“If you could upset Major Campbell’s inkpot, then a bullet passing through the air a hundred years ago will hit you, if you are there.”

“I think we’re magic and we can’t be hurt,” said Debbie, enjoying teasing the Topher even more than teasing Linda.

“Do you think it’s magic, Topher?”

“No I don’t believe in magic and superstition. I am sure there is an explanation for what’s happening. I don’t know how it happens, but I am sure it’s natural.”

He added doubtfully, “Somehow.”

“So what’re we going to do to keep out of danger?”

“You should be able to keep out of danger. You know more about a lot of things at your age than Major Campbell and John and Comfort Curtis ever did during their whole lives.”

“And we have the walkie-talkie.” Said Debbie.

“Exactly. Do you have another set, in case you and Debbie get separated?”

“Yep, at home. We only bring it when we’re going to be apart.”

“So you could talk to each other — one could be with the Major and the other could get messages to John about what the Major was doing.”

“What’ll you do, Topher?”

“I don’t know. There’s not too much I can do. You can go back there. I can’t. The most I can do is keep up with what John sees and is thinking.”

“Hey, Lindy, what you gonna tell Mummy about this?”

“I – I’m not sure. What do you think, Toph?”

“Earlier, we thought we should not tell her. I still don’t see how we can. She won’t believe it, or she’ll think I’m a bad influence on you.”

“You and I both told her it was a game, already,” said Linda.

“Topher told a lie-eye, Topher told a lie-eye,” chanted Debbie.

“Debbie, shut up,” said her sister.

“It is a sort of game. We have to guess what’ll happen next and where you girls can go to meet John. Your mother would understand it if we told her quite a bit about it, if we just told her that there is this boy John in the Mackenzie rebellion.”

“What is the Mackenzie rebellion?”

“You heard them in the Curtis house talk about a man named Mackenzie. He was William Lyon Mackenzie, who led a rebellion.”

“What’s a `bellion?”

“A fight for freedom against those who won’t let you be free.”

“Like me yelling against Lindy?”

“Debbie, shut up!”

“So,” continued the Topher, “we just tell her that John is in love with Martha Curtis, and he is going to get arrested by the Major. She can think we’re acting it out.”

“What makes it educational? You told Mum it was educational.”

“It’s educational, Debbie, because you are learning ’bout history.”

“I’ll say we are,” said Linda. “Firsthand.”

Then she reflected. “When’ll we go back there?”

“When your time or ‘when’ their time?”


“We’d better get home and fed and rested up. Then maybe after supper – you eat early, don’t you?”


“And the best way to get back is to go to Norham to where the Curtises used to live.”

“We’d better be there when John gets there to see he don’t mess up the message,” said Debbie.

She liked John, but thought he was pretty dumb.

Thelma offered the Topher a cigarette after the late lunch the four of them shared. The two girls had gone off to an enforced rest – they certainly looked as though they needed it, being doubly red from the heat and the sun and from their exertions.

“No thanks, Mrs. Scace.”

“So that’s the educational game. Pretty imaginative, I must say. Who is taking the part of the boy John.”

The Topher blushed. He hated lying.

“I suppose you could say that I am.”

“Amazing how you change your voice. Have you done any acting?”

“Oh, yes, a lot.”

At that moment the telephone rang. It was Thelma’s mother, Mrs. Yuruchuk, phoning to say she would be coming for supper and wanted to spend the evening with the family. Thelma explained when she came back from the phone.

“I think that puts ‘paid’ to your game continuing this afternoon.”

“Just as well,” said the Topher, though not believing it. “It’s such hot weather for long hikes around the country-side. May we continue in the morning?”

“Of course. Mother will be gone by then. Or, if she isn’t, we’ll want the children out of our hair. Take my bike again if you wish.”

“I will tomorrow, but I think today I’ll go home slowly on foot, through the woods where I can avoid the sun. I need a bit of time to myself.”

“If the girls are a bother, say so. But I do appreciate you spending so much time with them.”

“They’re no bother. They’re the most wonderful girls of their age I’ve ever met. But I want to get the game over — to sort of let it work itself out, before I have to go back to the city.”

“When’s that?”

“Probably the weekend.”

He got up to go.

“Thanks a lot for lunch. I wish I could cook you a meal.”

“Maybe you’ll get a chance. Goodbye.”

The Topher walked down the hill with mixed feelings. Thelma had said she would tell the girls of the change of plan. But he felt mildly disloyal, going off and letting her tell them what would be a great disappointment. He had got so wrapped up in the lives of the girls and of revolutionary Norham, that the adult world, with its timetables and common-sense regulations of small children seemed as much of a nuisance to him as it did to the children.

Yet the real world — or the present world, rather than the past — was more important, when all was said and done. Certainly, if he told even the most liberal of people, like Thelma Scace, of what was really happening, it would be difficult for her to accept it. It was not part of her experience, and she would be sure to think of it as – a game.

He was not sure he could talk to Mary about it. He was accustomed to telling her most things, and had told her about his dreams of John. But that was all they were, at that time, dreams. And they had slowed down since he had been living with Mary. There was something about partnership, even if it was not officially called marriage, which deprived you of some of your independence. It was the limiting of action that mattered: having to accommodate to someone else’s habits and times and to sharing chores.

What mattered was that something of the inward vision of life, of your own identity and reality, was blurred by partnership. He remembered reading that the poet Robert Browning, after he had performed his daring rescue of Miss Barrett from her tyrannical father, and carried her off as his bride to the continent of Europe from her unhealthy London home, stopped writing poetry for about three years. It was the same with Mary and his relation to John.

It was not only now the relationship with John which had been restored. John, was, right from the beginning, a poor fish — whining, timid, superstitious, all the things the Topher was anxious never to be. But now there was Martha. She was a more potent rival than Mary. Mary was intelligent, responsive, would sit and talk with him for hours. She was also efficient. He supposed that Martha and Mary had much in common – a strong person, yet desirable as a woman for all that.

Martha was an old-fashioned female, accustomed to the domination of men, but making her own way; very feminine, flirtatious, perhaps even dishonest. Yet he felt a devotion to her, a sense of worship even. So what was this feeling towards Martha? Or towards John? He went back to thinking about them. His feeling towards them both was one of responsibility, as though he were answerable for their fate. He had always felt this about John, hence his seeking out Norham. But Martha? He was not only answerable for what happened to her, but also in some strange way answerable to her.

She was perhaps, through John, making a demand on the Topher across the years and the Topher had to obey. He did not like doing it particularly, but felt he must. Without this he could not find the peace and inner direction which he needed. He saw now that no amount of standing on his head and meditating on an empty mantra would give him this. He could only get it by giving something to these other people.

In the meantime, he needed to be himself. He returned to his camping site on the dry island between the two branches of the stream, and brewed up some mint tea from the wild catnip growing there. Then he sat, cross legged and most relaxed, letting his mind become a blank. After a while, if the girls had peeped at him, they would have been amused to see that he was doing a headstand, a long headstand, lasting, he never would know how many minutes. He took this position without really being aware of it. For his mind had opened up into John’s consciousness, and for some time he was not even aware that he was different from John.

John trembled as he came to the door of Sugar Grove, looking warily over his shoulder. No one was about. He knocked at the door; no answer. So he went in very quietly. There was no one in the front room, but the usual smells of food came from the kitchen. He went in and there was Martha, singing to herself as she worked.

The Curtises had not yet started to use an outside lean-to as a summer kitchen. The kitchen was part of the house and served both summer and winter, though it became very hot in summer. This being June, it was not unpleasant. A heavy iron stove served both as heater and stove, and was used to cook the household meals, to boil the water for canning and washing, and to produce the chief heat for the house in winter.

There was a heavy table in the centre of the floor, and John Curtis had recently bought a pine cabinet, which stood over against the wall. Kitchen utensils were everywhere and over the back door was hunting equipment and some farm tools for use in the kitchen garden. On the wall hung a balance used for all kinds of weighing. All this was quite familiar to John, though new to the Topher who saw through his eyes.

Martha was at the table, pounding at some grain in a wooden vessel, nearly big enough to be called a tub.

“Martha, love, I’m back!”

“Have you done your watch for the Major?”


John was uncertain how to talk. He had not told Martha about the Little People.

“And I overheard that he intends to put me in the jail..”

“Oh, John, you must hide. You’d never get out!”

“But first I must get a message to Master Comfort. Is he here?”

“Not now. I am alone for a while.”

The Topher noticed a glint in Martha’s eye as she said that, a glint he recognized, but poor John was too inexperienced with girls to notice it.

“I must get a message to him.”


“His plan is known. The Major has been told of the assembly at noon tomorrow, and will be getting his men ready before that. With muskets, and there’s terrible knives at the end of their muskets.”

“How did you find out?”

“I overheard. I overheard.” John trembled as he lied.

“Dear John, you must have been very close, and very frightened.”

Martha had come up close to him and was holding his hands looking
lovingly into his eyes. John shuddered.

“Aye, and I’m still frightened.”

He did not say how frightened he was of her.

“Don’t fear so, John. We are right. All across Upper Canada there’s folks think like we do. Be brave for that you believe in.”

“I will, I will.”

“John, you want to live in peace and freedom, do you not?”

“Yes yes, I do… I do.”

“And near me, dear John.”

“Oh always, not just near you, Martha, with you.”

John got so excited he put his arms about her and she quickly cuddled in close. But the effect of his fear and his feelings was too much for him. He began to sob on her shoulder. Great tears flooded down her back.

“There there, John, don’t cry.”

“I want always to be with you, Martha. I’ve never been happy since my Mammy died till now. You are so good.”

“I can’t make you a mother, John, but I might make you a wife.”

She held him at arm’s length and caught his eye. Poor John, humourless as ever, his face covered with tears, just gaped at her.

“Well do you want me as your wife, John?”

“Yes, yes, I do, I do. I have wanted that all along. You must have known how I felt. ”

“But you never told me.”

“I’ve been so afraid, afraid of the redcoats and afraid of Master Comfort, and of your father.”

“And of me?”

“Yes, yes. You are too good. You are so beautiful. You are like — a wild raspberry rose, out yonder.”

“They are beautiful, but I did not know my face was red.”

But the humour was lost on John. The wild raspberry rose was his idea of poetry and beauty, and he could pay no greater compliment.

“Then John, if you would marry me, you must first find my Uncle Comfort and give your news; then you must hide away from here.”

“But will you be alright? What about the redcoats?”

“I shall come to no harm. The redcoats are not savages that carry off women of their own kind.”

John nearly fainted at the thought. But Martha continued.

“I am doing something special for you.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“I am making a flag for you to carry to give heart to the men. A great eagle flag, and you are to carry it.”

“Oh, must I do that?”

“Can you handle a musket?”

She knew that he could not. His father had never trusted him with one, so bumbling and nervous was he.

“Then if you are to be my husband” –John nearly fainted again at the word -“you must carry the flag. I shall have it for you and get it to you when it is needed. It will give heart to our people and to you also.”

John rallied “You give heart to me Martha, telling me you love me and will marry me. And I shall do that for you, if I die doing it.”

The Topher had now become aware of himself, and as he did so, he realized that John was remembering the brief vision he had had of his ‘God’, the Topher standing strong and half bare on the road. He had not reflected so much about this before, but it was quite new in their relationship that John should know about him, and all that he knew about him was that he represented some power that had whispered,

“I’ll always be with you! We must protect you, for Martha’s sake.”

So John knew, over and above the strength Martha was trying to give him, that he was not alone. And the Topher knew why he had always known John: to help him in just such a time of need.