By Jayne Barnard
Trouble came on the dawn breeze, blowing over the Inner Harbour faster than the earliest wire service typists could warm up their fingers. The great ocean liner Lusitania was sunk off the Irish coast with great loss of life. Well before the dire truth about the German U-boat arrived, tragedy had set its mark on the day. Vancouver Island has its own iron coasts, death-dealing rocks and ghost-ridden reefs. Not a man on the docks that morning but could hear the wails of the doomed and feel the great iron ship thrash as her boilers blew. A loss at sea is every islander’s daily dread, mine not least although I’m a ten-year constable with the Victoria Police and have never been a dockhand or a deckhand. I said a prayer for those souls on my way back to the station at shift-change, and again before my eyes closed for the day.
When Ma woke me for supper, she had the tally of the lost at over a thousand. Maybe fifteen of the passengers were Victoria folk on their way to England, another thirty from other Island towns. Enough to touch half the population some way.
Germany’s government had claimed the sinking while I slept, celebrating it as a victory in keeping supposed cargoes of munitions out of England’s greedy war machine. All those civilian passengers, women and children and doctors and diplomats, didn’t matter to the Germans at all. In Victoria, more English than England, whose loyal sons were even now in the trenches or training for them, the distant German glee was worse than a stick in the gullet. The night-duty sergeant said Mr. Perdue, the captain of detectives, was working the bars to pick up the public mood. Off-duty constables were being brought back. I was to call in from each police box I passed, whether anything happened or not.
By the time I paced the two blocks to my first call-box, I understood those precautions. Patriotic songs roared out of every club and hotel from the Legislature to Chinatown. The singers were sure to exercise their fists once their throats got tired, and they wouldn’t stay in the bars either. Shopkeepers were locking up and drawing blinds as I passed. I took to warning every woman I saw to get herself home, even the street girls. The evening breeze died before dark, leaving the city to seethe with grief, rage and beer. I made a round on mostly empty pavements before Mr. Perdue slipped out of an alley.
“Get on the blower quick,” he said, “and get men up to the Kaiserhof. Young Dunsmuir went down with the ship and his pals intend on making someone pay.” I hot-footed it for the call-box and then to the hotel. The place was renamed the Blanshard last year to erase the Prussian taint but everyone still calls it the K. It was a natural beacon for soldiers out to avenge a friend’s death on anything faintly German.
Boy Dunsmuir – James by his proper name – was a friend to his whole regiment and the golden apple of his daddy James’s eye. Never mind that his daddy and granddaddy were reviled the length of the Island for brutal strike-breaking and for banning the most basic safety measures, for building their castles and fattening their families on the blood of dead miners. When it came down to the Hun or the Dunsmuir, the latter was Island folk. I had nothing against Boy myself – for a spoiled rich lad he had joined up early and trained hard – but he picked a heck of a way to die for England.
As I stepped into the Kaiserhof, a young soldier standing atop the bar hailed me. “Constable. Drink to Boy Dunsmuir.”
“I’m on duty, son. I’ll pray for your friend, though.” I removed my helmet and put it over my heart. It was a mite theatrical but it played well. The lad on the bar saluted me, his friends saluted him, and for a moment I could hope the situation was less volatile than Mr. Perdue feared.
The lad was more single-minded. “We will reclaim his blood from the Hun a hundred times over.” Men cheered him. “Death to all Germans!” he yelled next. The answer rattled the chandelier. “We’ll start right here,” he roared.
“A song first!” I hollered, and led off on The Best Old Flag on Earth, singing lustily alone on the first few lines before the nearest men joined in. At the first chorus the whole cohort bellowed the line, “Then give three cheers…” I had bought the length of the second verse and maybe a third chorus. I sidled toward the street door and looked in vain for a paddy wagon or a line of blue helmets.
The final chorus arrived and with it the crash of breaking glass. The lad on the bar had flung his heavy mug straight into the mirror behind him. More mugs flew. The barman waved his arms in protest and then, under a shower of mirrored shards, covered his head and disappeared through a door at the back. My bellow went unheard amid the melee. I was spun around and shoved out the door, groping for my whistle while the cheers and crashing of glass rose to a crescendo. The crowd poured out after me, pressing me against the brown brick pillar but offering no other insult.
“To the German Club,” someone bellowed, and they were off, singing the chorus of The Call of the Motherland. “At the call, as one, each Canadian son, Is ready to take his stand….” The furor brought out every half-drunk barfly for a block either way. Soon they were a hundred strong, with more joining every minute, marching proudly away as if I, the Civil Law, did not exist. Even twenty years ago, half the mob would have carried coal-oil lanterns to light their path. The impulse of a moment could start a conflagration that consumed whole city blocks. Under our modern streetlights, though they pried cobbles from the roadside as mobs have done for hundreds of years, they carried no open flames. It was a sole small benison to report at the corner call-box while I pled with the duty sergeant for assistance. Aid did not arrive before the mob, with me vainly remonstrating in their wake, reached the German Club. They smashed every piece and pane of glass and draped the Union Jack out the window while I stood helpless outside.
They could have been stopped there if the riot squad had met them, but once the first stone shattered a nearby shop window it was too late. The soldiers and their motley allies pillaged their way down the road, bashing into every business that had a Germanic name or a possibly-once-Prussian owner. I cut through an alley seeking my reinforcements and found only old Mr. Loewen trying to get into the back of his shop before the mob reached it from the front.
“You must stop them, Constable,” he cried. “All my cloth, all my patterns.”
“I can’t do it alone, sir,” said I truthfully. “But more police are coming. You go home. It’s not safe for you down here.”
“I’m not a German. Three generations in Montreal before we came here. Tell them.”
“They won’t listen tonight. You go home. We’ll sort this out.” I no longer believed but I kept my face as calm as if I did. At the corner of the alley I gave him a little push uphill and I went down, toward the ruckus.
The police squad had finally appeared, formed up to block the side street. They were just standing there, watching the mess happen. I had to bellow to be heard.
“Sergeant, what do we do?”
“Wait them out.”
“These are good white boys expressing their patriotism. They’ll settle in a bit.”
“But they’re wrecking shops. Singing about putting Canadian steel into Germans. They’ll hurt somebody. They just missed Mr. Loewen.”
“You want to arrest a councilman’s son or an MLA’s nephew over some tailor with German kin? Let them be. Get around behind them and pick up any vagrants caught looting. Don’t break any heads you don’t have to.”
I don’t know if it was an order from above or his own opinion, but if their skin had been any other colour than white, their names from Eastern Europe instead of the British Isles, we’d have stopped them cold at the first broken window. A constable with a widowed mother and young sisters to keep couldn’t argue with his superiors, though. Back down the alley I went, taking a couple of others with me, and collected looters.
By midnight the cells were full and the mob still singing patriotic songs at the top of its massed lungs. One of ours said Chief Langley was asking for a Cavalry regiment to restore order. Soldiers in uniform on the quiet streets of Victoria, putting down a full-blown riot begun by other soldiers. We might as well be in France.
Meanwhile Deputy Chief Palmer, Captain Perdue and other senior officers tried to form police lines and contain the mob to a few streets. Mr. Palmer kept a cool head for a man who had never been under fire, but maybe he had a past before he came to Victoria. Half a head taller than most, he’d walk out in front of those stone-wielding patriots, single them out by name where he could, shame some into going home and more into slinking backward. Sad to say, there was always another rowdy fellow to take their place and smash into another innocent business.
Only time I saw Mr. Palmer break his calm was when a constable in uniform turned up within the mob. Dark hair all sweaty and his eyes crazed, he was smashing a window with his police baton. Mr. Palmer knew HIS name all right, charged in there yelling, “Abbott, back to the station right now. Turn in your uniform and get yourself home until I tell you otherwise. If I see you down here again I’ll throw you into the cells myself.” Of course I charged in there after him. You don’t let your officer get hit from behind in a skirmish like that. Didn’t get but a few shoves before the mob swung away from us. Nobody wanted to hit a copper for real, especially not the gung-ho soldier boys. They’d rather be Over There getting shot at than sitting home in a cell block while their pals went without them.
All in all, it was a brutal night but not too bloody. Come dawn a lot went home on their own to sleep it off, and in between taking reports of damage from outraged citizens, some of us got a snooze down at the station. By evening the mayor had a platoon of Cavalry lined up behind him when he stepped outside to read the Riot Act. Soldiers do take orders from other soldiers, it turns out, or at least don’t go up against them. There was another couple of songs out of sheer cussedness but most folks had had enough by then and off they went in ones and threes. I hoped they would wake up tomorrow damned ashamed of themselves.
Whether that lot had no shame or whether it was another bunch entirely, the mob busted out in a new direction next. Somebody said Lady Barnard, the Lieutenant Governor’s wife, had raised a glass to the Kaiser and soon a hundred people knew it for fact. We all piled into a lorry for a hard ride over to Rockland to protect the loyal English family in Government House from the patriots in the streets. By the time we arrived the mob was gathering, yelling that Lady Barnard was a Prussian herself. Stones and bottles were to hand.
What stopped them was Mr. Palmer. He stood right there in the street and bellowed, “You call yourselves patriots? Attacking a defenseless woman in her own home, that’s what a damned Hun would do. My oldest boy, Roy, is gone to France to fight the Hun while you’re still at home. I’ll be damned myself if I let him keep fighting Over There while his old pals back home loot and pillage like a lot of drunken GERMANS.”
There was a bit more in this vein and then darned if the rowdies didn’t slink away. No trouble after that, except some cowardly stinker shied a chunk of broken brick at Mr. Palmer outside his house. Cut his cheek. It came out of the dark and he didn’t see the thrower. Chief Langley said I should accompany Mr. Palmer to and from the station until the city settled, and assigned constables to other officers as well. I wasn’t averse. A pleasant streetcar ride from downtown, Washington Avenue has well-kept homes owned mostly by civic workers and businessmen. No rioters, drunks, or looters. Not like my usual beat at all.
The glass got swept up, the shopkeepers called insurance companies and reporters got busy writing about how we in the police weren’t worth our wages. With the sergeant’s words about patriotic white boys in my ears, I couldn’t defend us. I respected Mr. Palmer for standing up to the mob, though, and it was no hardship to walk with him although he mostly ignored me to think his own thoughts. Last thing on my night shift I waited on his porch for him to finish breakfast, and first thing at the start of the evening, I hung about the station until he was ready to go home. He had a nice house and good-sized family, girls and boys both. A big photograph of the oldest boy, the one in the uniform, hung in his front hallway. I saw it when the door opened.
On our second morning, I accompanied Mr. Palmer down to the station and ran a few errands for myself. Ma didn’t feel safe on the streets and wouldn’t let my sister out either, but somebody had to do the marketing. I did not see much daylight since taking the night shift, and this was a morning worthy of a song. Springtime in Victoria is like high summer anywhere else: warm, sunny days and flower-filled hedges, girls in bright dresses and everyone smiling. At least that’s the usual way of a May morning. No girls today. Like my mother and sister they stayed home, shocked at the recent chaos of our quiet, well-mannered city.
As I moved through the downtown blocks in my uniform, the last remains of windows crunching under my boots, shopkeepers glared at me as though I personally had failed to protect their premises. In some cases they were right. The regiment was on guard outside the Legislative building, City Hall and the courthouse, bringing a patina of war to our own familiar streets. How did families in France and Belgium live every day under the constant bombardment of guns, the throb of marching feet, the threat from battle-crazed men at every turn? Their women and shopkeepers could not hide behind drawn blinds for months on end.
The soldiers on guard outside the police station didn’t smile at me either. Our force would be a long time living down our failure to keep order.
Nearing home, I saw a lone girl in a bright dress by a flower-filled hedge. A tall fellow had her by the arms, shaking her something awful. As her head turned I recognized her: one of Mr. Palmer’s daughters. She lived with her father so I had no worry about interfering in a marital dispute. “Police,” I bellowed, and ran the last few yards.
The man took one look at me, shoved her to the ground and ran off. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. Dark sweaty hair, crazy eyes and a face red from fury or drink. Unremarkable shirtsleeves and suspenders. No hat. Maybe if I saw him in a hat, or a barroom. Ruffians from my beat didn’t often come up this way, and they should all know better than to treat a good girl like a street girl. Especially in broad morning sunlight.
“Miss Palmer, are you harmed?” I dropped to my knees beside her, my parcels tumbling. She was shaking all over, brown curls falling from their pins and her nice shirtwaist marked with grime where those filthy hands had clutched her. If I caught up with that rat on my beat, I’d teach him a thing or two.
“I am not injured.” She raised her chin and though there were tears in her eyes there were none on her cheeks. “Please, constable, help me with my parcels. I hope nothing broke. My sister needs her medicine.”
Mr. Palmer had raised a strong girl there, even if she should not have been on the streets alone while the city was unsettled. I gathered up her parcels and mine, and helped her to her feet. “Did you know that man who attacked you?”
She shook her head. “He knew me, though. He told me to tell my father he would have his revenge.”
“His revenge? For standing up to the rioters?”
“I don’t know. He only said ‘he’ll pay, I’ll have my revenge.’ He repeated it several times. My father must be warned.”
“I’ll see you home and go straight back down. And you, Miss Palmer, must stay indoors until that man is apprehended.”
“Call me Kat.” She smiled, an impish twist of the lips that woke a dimple. “Only not in front of my father. He disapproves of informality in general, but you’re one of his men. Almost family. Oh, dear, our parcels are sadly mixed. Come indoors while I sort them out. And you won’t mention that man while in the house? Mother mustn’t hear about this.”
She was rather a chatty girl, like my sister and likely the same age. For all I knew they might be acquainted. I didn’t mention my name and she didn’t ask, but I heard about her practical older sister, frail younger one, and the two war-mad young brothers who would keep a sharp eye against any strange man near the house if told he was a possible German sympathizer. The oldest brother, Roy, would be going to the trenches any day now and they were all very worried about him. Another thing she didn’t ask was why I had not signed up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force myself. If she knew I was the sole support of my family, I thought she would approve my decision to stay home. Kat’s older sister was not the only practical girl in the Palmer house.
When reporting the threat to Mr. Palmer, I did not let on I’d heard so much about his family. My father would have been his equal in the civic administration ten years ago, but I’m head of the family now. Constables are not socially involved with their superiors’ families save by the superior’s direct invitation. Mr. Palmer, busy with the paperwork relating to dozens of prisoners charged with looting, public drunkenness and so on, thanked me for my service to his daughter, ordered me to keep my eyes peeled for that ruffian, and sent me home for the day. No invitation was likely, not if I caught the brazen scoundrel in the very act of his revenge. If Miss Kat happened to be acquainted with my sister, though, I could offer to escort them both sometimes. I hurried home to ask Julia about her.
That night I made my patrols through streets preternaturally silent. The clubs were shuttered, the bars subdued. Between the soldiers still standing guard and the boarded windows on every block, the warlike atmosphere crept into my bones. For a time I almost felt the distant shudder of artillery, but it was a storm pounding the Olympic Peninsula, tossing like so much flotsam any ships unlucky enough to be caught out there. I said a prayer for all souls at sea and thought for the first time in two days of the many families mourning the Lusitania’s thousand and more victims. It wasn’t in my heart to hate the Hun more for this atrocious act than I already did, but surely a Just God would not let the perpetrators go unpunished. Let their submarine sink to the bottom of the sea and be crushed by the weight of the dead.
Praying for vengeance reminded me of my duty to find the fellow who had threatened Mr. Palmer. But though I poked my nose into every low drinking den and littered alley, I neither saw his ruddy face nor remembered where I had seen him before. A number of minor villains, familiar to and with me, did not bother to run away at my approach. They knew as well as I that the city jail was full to bursting and I’d not want them right now. Nor did anyone recognize my description of the scoundrel I sought. Indeed it was little enough: dark hair, red face, dirty shirt.
Reporting my failure to Mr. Palmer on our morning walk brought nothing more than a grunt. At this critical juncture in the city’s affairs, with editorials against the police in every newspaper, he had other things on his mind than his own safety. I, however, had experienced the cost of a father lost too young. Miss Kat would not suffer that burden if my vigilance could prevent it. Her young brothers should not give up dreams of university as I had. As a man and a police constable, it was clearly my duty to examine the Palmer house’s environs on my way home, lest the villain be lurking in their garden shed.
If she saw me, Miss Kat might offer me a coffee for my pains. I set off for the streetcar with a new spring in my step. Not half a block up the street, my reverie was interrupted by the sound of my own name. I nodded to a day shift constable named Jones and kept going for several strides before fully registering the face of the man with him. That was the fellow who had shaken Miss Kat. He was being hustled through the station doorway. The unlucky chance that someone else had arrested him might have averted a firm lesson in manners from me, but adding my information to his arrest record would only take a few minutes.
The station entrance was blocked for some moments while a group of miscreants was herded out to face the magistrates, but soon I was in front of the duty sergeant, the same man who had refused to stop the rioters the other night. “That man who was just brought in. I want to add to his charge sheet.”
“What man would that be?”
I described him.
The sergeant shrugged. “No new bookings this morning.”
“But I saw him come not ten minutes past.” Suppressing a suspicion that the felon was the scion of a top family, hustled quietly out the back door instead of being charged, I went to look in the cells. Perhaps he had been left to cool his heels while Jones attended to another matter. But that face was not among the weary ones lining the barred cages. The guard there also denied a new prisoner had come in. My suspicion reignited, I made my way back up to the offices, intent on warning Mr. Palmer of the revenger in the building.
I was five paces past Jones before noticing him. “Jones! Where’s that felon you just brought in?”
He looked over his shoulder. “Ain’t brought anybody. We’re full up.”
I gave him a hard glare. “You had a man by the arm outside a quarter hour ago.”
He stared blankly for a moment, and laughed. “Felon, eh? I’ll be sure and tell him he was mistook for a crook. Daft fellow showed up hung-over. I told him to beg off sick before Mr. Palmer caught sight of him, but did he listen? I left him with his head under a tap, trying to clean himself up for his hearing. Only one he’ll get.”
“His hearing? What for?”
“Suspended, first night of the riots. Guess I’ll be training another constable, if we can find anybody as will be a copper when he could be a soldier.”
“That was Constable Abbott? I didn’t recognize him out of uniform. Which way did he go?”
“See Mr. Palmer, like I said. Fool that he is.”
“You’re the fool. Abbott’s sworn vengeance on Mr. Palmer.”
He was hard on my heels as I pounded down the corridor. The court clerk scuttled behind. Just inside Mr. Palmer’s office stood the man Abbott, his dark hair dripping, filthy shirt hanging between his suspenders. He reached behind his back, raised his shirttail and pulled out a pistol.
In mid-leap came the clack as the hammer released. Yet over the pounding of my blood I heard no shot. Mr. Palmer remained upright in his chair but surely Abbott could not miss at that range. My tackle hit the man low and the clerk grabbed his gun-hand. This time the shot roared in my ears. I crashed to the floor, taking Abbott and the clerk with me.
Shattered plaster rained over us all. As the dust sifted down, we rolled Abbott over and secured his hands. Then, fearing what gore awaited my eyes, I scrambled to my feet and approached the desk. Mr. Palmer still sat there, now mopping his face free of plaster with a clean white handkerchief.
“A tackle well timed, Constable.”
“But sir, how are you not injured?”
He smiled grimly. “His gun misfired. I have often rebuked Abbott for not keeping his equipment in good order. How was I to know I should one day be thanking the Good Lord for those slovenly ways?” By this time half the force was crowded around the doorway. Jones and I dragged Abbott to his feet while the clerk waved a path clear for us. “Charge him with attempted murder, if you please,” said Mr. Palmer. “And, Constable?”
“Perhaps you would come to tea at my house on Sunday next? My family will wish to thank you.”
Although I subsequently testified at Abbott’s trial and rejoiced with the Palmers when he was sent down for seven years at hard labour, Miss Kat’s undoubted gratitude toward me resulted in no warmer feelings than friendship. By summer’s end she was walking out with a soldier, her bright dress and brighter smiles gone to a man younger and less cumbered than I.
I often took tea at the house that year. When Mr. Palmer once walked me to the porch alone, I at last dared to ask him how he had sat so coolly staring down the barrel of Abbott’s gun that frightful May morning.
“My son,” he said, looking not at me but out over the leaf-strewn lawn, “must stare at death down any number of gun-barrels on any given day, and keep a stiff upper lip. How will I look him in the face if I could not stare down one?”
Mr. Palmer’s face was not tested that way. His son Roy, whose name had helped to shield Government House during the riots, fell to a trench mortar the following spring, one among many thousands of loyal Canadian sons who went singing to the Front and were silenced forever. M