(Note: This story is mostly based on actual events, to the extent that they are known. The rest is speculative.)
Toronto, 1935, looking north on downtown Yonge Street. A City of Toronto Archives photo
The boy was 12 years old in the summer of 1935 during the depths of the Great Depression when a big, black car with unusual licence plates pulled up in front of a rooming house on Brock Avenue in the west-end of Toronto.
It was one of the city’s poorest streets, dubbed “bedbug row” at the time, in the midst of the Great Depression. A tall, slender, impeccably-dressed man slowly emerged from the driver’s door. With one hand resting on the roof of the car he paused for a few moments to stretch his neck, before opening another door to reach in for a briefcase, of the fine, leather style a barrister might carry or, as in his case, a special kind of private secretary. He locked the car carefully and, with the briefcase in his right hand, walked the few steps onto the sidewalk, and then turned up a concrete walkway leading to the rooming house. He walked rather slowly, seeming to put each foot down with an odd tentativeness, as if a visitor from another world. There was some kind of emblem on his jacket, over his heart. A coat of arms, perhaps? Hard to tell from a distance.
It had been a long drive from Ottawa to Toronto. More than once he had thought he should have accepted the offer of a driver after all, that he had perhaps been too stubborn, too much the good and faithful, and fully capable aide – ready, willing and able to do anything asked of him; and to be discreet, that above all in this situation.
Someone watching might have seen him shake his head a little, almost imperceptibly, at the irony of being drawn into it again. And now this, this is what it had come to . . . years of cleaning up after “the Great Celebrity,” quietly, discreetly; not so much, after all, for his sake, but for something far more worthy and important. And so, he had done his distasteful duty, time after time. He had thought he had left all that behind a few years ago, in utter exasperation, finally. But still it goes on, as he must always have known it would. He had not been surprised when he learned why he was summoned the previous day to His Excellency’s private study.
“I understand in your previous service you took care of an awkward situation that . . .”
His Excellency, as always in those days a Peer of the Realm, rose wearily from his chair and took a few steps to a window looking toward the west across the sprawling Residence grounds. Surely, it was no small matter to be Governor-General of a British Dominion. He had consoled himself more than once with that thought. He paused for a moment as he chose his words carefully. “In Toronto, in 1923. I’m told in the utmost confidence by certain people at home that you handled it very well, and discreetly.”
The other man he had just summoned to his study did not bat an eye, or otherwise react. Well, yes, he did, come to think of it: just the taking of an extra breath perhaps, a hint of a sigh, barely evident. He was human, after all, and he remembered right away what the “situation” had been. It brought back unpleasant memories; but that was one of the worst, to be sure.
“Yes, . . . I recall. I do indeed.”
There was a moment of silence as the two men stood looking across a very large desk into each other’s eyes, long enough to confirm the topic at hand without an excess of words.’
“You, of course, know more about it than I do. But certain people tell me there was a condition attached to the arrangements.”
“Yes, . . . there was. “They . . .”
“The adoptive parents?”
“Yes, they were told they would have to give the child back if someone came later to get him.”
His Excellency reached down and opened a drawer in his desk. He withdrew a large, sealed envelope and held it out to the other man who stepped forward and took it with a downward nod of his head.
“You will find all the information you need in there. As well, there is a letter you may show them if you judge it to be necessary. A vehicle is being prepared for you. It’s a long drive. There is someone I can offer you to do the driving . . . “
“No . . . that won’t be necessary.”
“Good then. However, another vehicle will escort you to Toronto and back, for . . . for safety sake. But it will stay some distance away, and rejoin you afterwards when you leave for the return trip here. The other driver knows nothing about the reason for your trip. Arrangements have already been made across the way for the boy. He won’t be here long. I daresay his life will be much different than it was. Do you have any questions?”
“No . . . it’s all quite clear. I believe I understand everything.”
“Yes, I believe you do. I look forward to your return.”
And on the long drive down from Ottawa, alone with his thoughts, he could still see it, of course: the blood of kings and queens, through the ages, to this street, in this place of all places, this dreary, provincial, backwater of a city. Who could have imagined? But it must be done. Yes, he could see that. “Certain people” must have felt it just wasn’t right, that the blood-royal be left in such circumstances. And so, he would do his duty again.
In the moment it took for those thoughts and recollections to work on him, the visitor began to feel a sense of curiosity about what he was about to discover as he approached the front door of the house on Brock Avenue that day in 1935. Mostly, he wondered who he might see in the boy, and how far back in time.
A rather short woman with prematurely graying hair opened the door in response to his knock. She wore a simple, home-made, print dress. She was instantly taken aback by the look of the man who stood before her, briefcase in hand. She did not greet the visitor with a smile. The stress, shame, and weariness of existing in a condition of dire poverty was wearing her down. The man took off his hat and asked, “Mrs. Beatrice McNichol?”
“Yes,” she said.
He identified himself before asking, “Is your husband, William McNichol, at home?”
“I would like to see you both,” he said. “I have come for the boy.”
“Just a moment,” Beatrice McNichol said nervously, after a moment during which time her face had gone pale. “I will get my husband.”
They did not have a phone; it was a luxury they could not afford. But, even so, there may not have been an attempt to contact Mr. And Mrs. McNichol in advance anyway. After, all they had been told 12 years ago this day might come; and they had agreed. And yet, somehow, he must have known they would be home.
Leaving the unexpected visitor standing in the open doorway, she turned back into the house. She might have asked him to step in, but she would have been ashamed to have such a person see how they lived.
Less than a minute later a middle-aged man with what might be described as a “working-man’s build” stood in the doorway. He too looked worried. His wife could be seen standing nearby, sheltered just behind her husband with an anxious look on her face. She saw the big, black touring car parked not far away. It was the sort of automobile rich people drove, or were driven around in. More than just rich; it spoke of a most privileged, powerful class of people that culture and tradition had conditioned her since birth to an attitude of subservience; and her husband too, for that matter, though it irked him.
William “Mac” McNichol, was good-natured, kindly man, but fiercely proud, not that far under his skin, of his Highland Scottish ancestry. He was a stationary engineer by trade; that is to say he was skilled in the care and operation of large boilers and such, and a hard worker, if there was work to be found and done. But he had a problem with authority; and his temper in that regard had lost him a good job at the Ontario Hydro-Electric Commission generating station in Niagara Falls. Bad timing, to have done that, because then came the Great Depression and suddenly there were no jobs to find. He moved his little family to Toronto; but still there was no steady work. He managed to find some casual employment, and odd jobs, but barely enough to pay the rent on the shabby, three-room flat, let alone cover the cost of feeding four mouths – he and his wife, her daughter Margarete, from an earlier marriage, and the boy they had adopted 12 years ago as a newborn baby. The child’s only given name was Frankland. The McNichols had given him the name Bruce, to honour their Scottish heritage.
“I’ve come for the boy,” the visitor said again, this time to “Mac” McNichol in an unhurried, even voice. It was not said in an aggressive tone, as if expecting resistance. But there was a certainty about it, an assumption everyone understood that what was being said was not in any doubt.
And indeed, the boy’s adoptive father did not get angry or otherwise put up an argument, according to the story I heard retold many times over the years.
Not by my father though. He never talked to me about anything to do with his adoption. Everything I know came from my mother, in whom he must have confided. They shared a similar background.
She had her own story, about her adoption by her maternal, Thompson grandparents at the age of three. At least she knew who her mother was; but, as for her father, she didn’t find out until she was in her late 80s that her biological father was one of the most famous men in the world during the early decades of the 20th Century.
Mom took some consolation from knowing that she was the love-child of a cross-border, romantic-love relationship of potentially epic, and certainly controversial proportions had it been made known publicly. But it was a love that was bound to end tragically, considering the narrow-minded, puritan morality of those times. And, so it did.
But, I’ll put that aside for now, and get back to “the boy” and the mysterious visitor who came to get him that day in 1935.
No, “Mac” McNichol and his wife Beatrice did not question the purpose of the man’s arrival at their door. They may have gone through the motions of looking over the letter he removed from his expensive, leather briefcase and held out to them. But they knew. Twelve years ago they had travelled by train from Niagara Falls to Toronto. Arrangements had been made for the private adoption. They had gone to a fine house on Lauder Avenue in the city’s west side to pick up the baby. It was the home of a family named Windsor, a socially well-connected family with members in notable professions in Toronto: a medical research scientist at Connaught Laboratories, a Toronto Transit Commission inspector, and so on. You would think the Windsors would have had sufficient financial resources to look after the child despite the circumstances of his birth, whatever they were. But in those days special arrangements were made for certain, shall we say, inconvenient children — quietly, discreetly, and privately. So, the baby, a well-formed, little boy with a wisp of blonde hair and bright, blue eyes, was handed over to the McNichols.
But there was one condition, and a big one at that: They were told that someday someone might come for the boy; and when that happened, if it happened, they would have to give him back, no questions asked.
That day had come.
The boy had been standing in the darkened hallway by the stairs that led up to other roomers’ bedrooms. A sensitive, intelligent child, he listened as best he could as he stood looking down the hall where his adoptive parents and the well-attired visitor were standing. It was as if someone from another planet had arrived. Little was said that he could make out, except, “I’ve come for the boy.” He heard that clearly. He did not react. He was frozen in place where he was. They had told him not too long ago that he was adopted. They may even have told him about the condition of his adoption, but probably sought to reassure him that it was unlikely to happen.
His mother turned and came down the hall; then his father, with the other man, the man from another world. All four of them went through a door into a kitchen where there was a table and chairs. They all sat down. Out of politeness, the visitor did not look around.
The boy’s father pulled a chair out from the table, sat down, drew the boy to him, and gently put his big hands on his shoulders. He looked him straight in the eye.
“You remember how we told you not long ago, how we went to get you when you were a baby, and they said someone might come to get you, and we’d have to give you back. This man has come for that reason.”
“Mac” McNichol’s tone was one of gentle, heart-felt affection. He paused, and said nothing more for a few moments as he looked into his only son’s eyes.
Then he rose from his chair, took his adopted son by his hand and stepped toward the visitor seated nearby who immediately stood up.
“Sir, this is Bruce Frankland McNichol.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” said the gentleman, for the boy could plainly see now up close that’s what he was. “You are a fine-looking young man.”
They looked each other in the eyes closely for a long moment. Yes, the visitor thought to himself with something like a chill, not from fear, but from the intensity of recognition. Yes, he had seen those eyes before. But a very long time ago, some place where great deeds were done.
“Why do they call you ‘Sir?’” the boy asked. Are you really a ‘Sir,’ like in books? You look like you might be.”
The visitor was uncharacteristically at a loss for words for a moment. What could he say?
“Well, thank you very much for saying so. That’s quite a compliment. I was a soldier once, and I have read many books.”
“In the Great War? Were you a soldier in the Great War?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, yes, in the Great War.”
“Is that why you limp, because you were wounded in the war?”
“Bruce, Bruce, give the poor man a chance,” said the boy’s father, turning to the visitor apologetically. “He’s always so full of questions. He’s a very curious young man.”
“Yes, I can see that. But nothing wrong with that, nothing at all.
“Do you like to read, Bruce?”
“Yes, sir, I love to read. I read everything I can. I love books. Sometimes my teacher gives me a book to take home. Right now, I’m reading Gulliver’s Travels. I’m enjoying it very much. It’s fun to read, especially the part where Gulliver pees on the little palace to put out the fire.”
“Bruce, don’t talk about things like that; it’s rude,” his adoptive mother said, embarrassed.
“Oh, that’s alright. We’re men of the world, aren’t we, young man?”
“Yes, sir. I very much hope so, sir. I would like to see more of the world.”
“And so you shall, Bruce Frankland, so you shall.”
The boy was taken aback to hear himself called by both his given names, Frankland, especially. “The land of the Franks,” he said, more to himself, in a thoughtful way. Then, looking at the man across from him at the table, he said, “that would be France then, wouldn’t it, the land of the Franks. You’ve been there, of course, during the war.”
“Yes, and yes again.” A clever boy, a clever boy, indeed, the visitor commented to himself, before saying, finally, “I believe it is time we must be going.”
His mother went to pack a suitcase with a change of clothes and his few precious possessions. She returned a little while later. Her eyes were red. He – her adopted son, that is – could see she had been crying. He wanted to reach out and comfort her. But for some reason he didn’t.
“The book, Mom, the book my teacher lent me, will you see that it gets back to her?”
She nodded, “yes.”
They all went to the front door. Margarete was not home. She had found a part-time job. He was apparently not going to have a chance to say good-bye. His father reached down, put his hand under his chin and bent down close to his face. “Come and see us some time when you’re all grown up, Bruce.”
“Yes, I . . . I will.” There was hesitation in his voice, a hint of confusion. He may have been fighting to hold back tears.
The man walked beside him down the walkway toward the car.
But the boy slowed down. And then he stopped. He put his suitcase down and stood quietly for a long moment, deep in thought.
Then he looked at the man, and shook his head. “I’m not going,” he said. “These people wanted me when no one else did. I’m not leaving them.”
And with that he picked up his suitcase and walked back to the house.
Without a word, the man in the dark jacket went to the big black car and, with some difficulty, carried the first of several heavy boxes up to the house.
“Mac” McNichol, being the kind of man he was, came out and offered to carry the rest, which he did. “Thank you. It’s been a pleasure meeting you and your wife,” the man said before he got behind the wheel and drove off, never to be seen or heard from again, by the McNichols.
The boxes contained a brand new, complete set of the latest, up-to-date Encyclopedia Britannica. Starting that day with the first volume, my father, Bruce Frankland McNichol, read and understood every word.
“Where’s the boy?”
“He wouldn’t come . . . and I certainly couldn’t force him.”
“No, of course not. But what about his adoptive parents? Did they not try to persuade him? Did they not try to point out the advantages?”
“No, they were very quiet after that. I think they were quite surprised, and touched by what the boy did, after all. And, indeed, it was an extraordinary gesture. He just stopped, put down his suitcase, turned to me and said, ‘These people wanted me when no one else did. I’m not leaving them.’ He is a remarkable boy. One could easily see that. A great deal of character and potential there. A terrible shame, such a waste, when one thinks of it, if I may say, in the sense of ‘He would have proved most royal, had he been put on.’”
“Yes, I see; I do indeed. But I daresay there are many such tragic boys scattered through the pages of history. And the parents, can we count on them?”
“Yes, I’m sure of that; and the boy too for that matter.”
“Well, that’s it, then. There’s nothing more we can do. I will pass your news on to the interested parties.”
“Yes. But I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the boy now.”
“Oh, the devil knows, I suppose. There’s no point in troubling ourselves about it. That door has closed. I doubt it will ever be opened again. He’s at the mercy of the cold, cruel world now. But if the truth be known, so are we all.”
Bruce Frankland McNichol, in his early 30s.
They were men of the world. They had moved in powerful circles. The one who had traveled to Toronto to pick up an unfortunate boy would continue to play an even more important role in high places. They knew how to keep secrets, and why. Few things could have surprised them. But in a few years they would be caught up in and consumed by world events that would make many things that had come before look very small and insignificant, including the fate of one illegitimate boy, the consequences of an ultimately weak man’s youthful indiscretions.