Part 2 out of 2
writing!' I echoed, no, I was not writing, I saw no use in ever
trying to write again. And down, I suppose, went my head once
more. She misunderstood, and thought the blow had fallen; I had
awakened to the discovery, always dreaded by her, that I had
written myself dry; I was no better than an empty ink-bottle. She
wrung her hands, but indignation came to her with my explanation,
which was that while R. L. S. was at it we others were only
'prentices cutting our fingers on his tools. 'I could never thole
his books,' said my mother immediately, and indeed vindictively.
'You have not read any of them,' I reminded her.
'And never will,' said she with spirit.
And I have no doubt that she called him a dark character that very
day. For weeks too, if not for months, she adhered to her
determination not to read him, though I, having come to my senses
and seen that there is a place for the 'prentice, was taking a
pleasure, almost malicious, in putting 'The Master of Ballantrae'
in her way. I would place it on her table so that it said good-
morning to her when she rose. She would frown, and carrying it
downstairs, as if she had it in the tongs, replace it on its book-
shelf. I would wrap it up in the cover she had made for the latest
Carlyle: she would skin it contemptuously and again bring it down.
I would hide her spectacles in it, and lay it on top of the
clothes-basket and prop it up invitingly open against her tea-pot.
And at last I got her, though I forget by which of many
contrivances. What I recall vividly is a key-hole view, to which
another member of the family invited me. Then I saw my mother
wrapped up in 'The Master of Ballantrae' and muttering the music to
herself, nodding her head in approval, and taking a stealthy glance
at the foot of each page before she began at the top. Nevertheless
she had an ear for the door, for when I bounced in she had been too
clever for me; there was no book to be seen, only an apron on her
lap and she was gazing out at the window. Some such conversation
as this followed:-
'You have been sitting very quietly, mother.'
'I always sit quietly, I never do anything, I'm just a finished
'Have you been reading?'
'Do I ever read at this time of day?'
'What is that in your lap?'
'Just my apron.'
'Is that a book beneath the apron?'
'It might be a book.'
'Let me see.'
'Go away with you to your work.'
But I lifted the apron. 'Why, it's "The Master of Ballantrae!"' I
'So it is!' said my mother, equally surprised. But I looked
sternly at her, and perhaps she blushed.
'Well what do you think: not nearly equal to mine?' said I with
'Nothing like them,' she said determinedly.
'Not a bit,' said I, though whether with a smile or a groan is
immaterial; they would have meant the same thing. Should I put the
book back on its shelf? I asked, and she replied that I could put
it wherever I liked for all she cared, so long as I took it out of
her sight (the implication was that it had stolen on to her lap
while she was looking out at the window). My behaviour may seem
small, but I gave her a last chance, for I said that some people
found it a book there was no putting down until they reached the
'I'm no that kind,' replied my mother.
Nevertheless our old game with the haver of a thing, as she called
it, was continued, with this difference, that it was now she who
carried the book covertly upstairs, and I who replaced it on the
shelf, and several times we caught each other in the act, but not a
word said either of us; we were grown self-conscious. Much of the
play no doubt I forget, but one incident I remember clearly. She
had come down to sit beside me while I wrote, and sometimes, when I
looked up, her eye was not on me, but on the shelf where 'The
Master of Ballantrae' stood inviting her. Mr. Stevenson's books
are not for the shelf, they are for the hand; even when you lay
them down, let it be on the table for the next comer. Being the
most sociable that man has penned in our time, they feel very
lonely up there in a stately row. I think their eye is on you the
moment you enter the room, and so you are drawn to look at them,
and you take a volume down with the impulse that induces one to
unchain the dog. And the result is not dissimilar, for in another
moment you two are at play. Is there any other modern writer who
gets round you in this way? Well, he had given my mother the look
which in the ball-room means, 'Ask me for this waltz,' and she
ettled to do it, but felt that her more dutiful course was to sit
out the dance with this other less entertaining partner. I wrote
on doggedly, but could hear the whispering.
'Am I to be a wall-flower?' asked James Durie reproachfully. (It
must have been leap-year.)
'Speak lower,' replied my mother, with an uneasy look at me.
'Pooh!' said James contemptuously, 'that kail-runtle!'
'I winna have him miscalled,' said my mother, frowning.
'I am done with him,' said James (wiping his cane with his cambric
handkerchief), and his sword clattered deliciously (I cannot think
this was accidental), which made my mother sigh. Like the man he
was, he followed up his advantage with a comparison that made me
'A prettier sound that,' said he, clanking his sword again, 'than
the clack-clack of your young friend's shuttle.'
'Whist!' cried my mother, who had seen me dip.
'Then give me your arm,' said James, lowering his voice.
'I dare not,' answered my mother. 'He's so touchy about you.'
'Come, come,' he pressed her, 'you are certain to do it sooner or
later, so why not now?'
'Wait till he has gone for his walk,' said my mother; 'and, forbye
that, I'm ower old to dance with you.'
'How old are you?' he inquired.
'You're gey an' pert!' cried my mother.
'Are you seventy?'
'Off and on,' she admitted.
'Pooh,' he said, 'a mere girl!'
She replied instantly, 'I'm no' to be catched with chaff'; but she
smiled and rose as if he had stretched out his hand and got her by
After that they whispered so low (which they could do as they were
now much nearer each other) that I could catch only one remark. It
came from James, and seems to show the tenor of their whisperings,
for his words were, 'Easily enough, if you slip me beneath your
That is what she did, and furthermore she left the room guiltily,
muttering something about redding up the drawers. I suppose I
smiled wanly to myself, or conscience must have been nibbling at my
mother, for in less than five minutes she was back, carrying her
accomplice openly, and she thrust him with positive viciousness
into the place where my Stevenson had lost a tooth (as the writer
whom he most resembled would have said). And then like a good
mother she took up one of her son's books and read it most
determinedly. It had become a touching incident to me, and I
remember how we there and then agreed upon a compromise: she was to
read the enticing thing just to convince herself of its
'The Master of Ballantrae' is not the best. Conceive the glory,
which was my mother's, of knowing from a trustworthy source that
there are at least three better awaiting you on the same shelf.
She did not know Alan Breck yet, and he was as anxious to step down
as Mr. Bally himself. John Silver was there, getting into his leg,
so that she should not have to wait a moment, and roaring, 'I'll
lay to that!' when she told me consolingly that she could not thole
pirate stories. Not to know these gentlemen, what is it like? It
is like never having been in love. But they are in the house!
That is like knowing that you will fall in love to-morrow morning.
With one word, by drawing one mournful face, I could have got my
mother to abjure the jam-shelf - nay, I might have managed it by
merely saying that she had enjoyed 'The Master of Ballantrae.' For
you must remember that she only read it to persuade herself (and
me) of its unworthiness, and that the reason she wanted to read the
others was to get further proof. All this she made plain to me,
eyeing me a little anxiously the while, and of course I accepted
the explanation. Alan is the biggest child of them all, and I
doubt not that she thought so, but curiously enough her views of
him are among the things I have forgotten. But how enamoured she
was of 'Treasure Island,' and how faithful she tried to be to me
all the time she was reading it! I had to put my hands over her
eyes to let her know that I had entered the room, and even then she
might try to read between my fingers, coming to herself presently,
however, to say 'It's a haver of a book.'
'Those pirate stories are so uninteresting,' I would reply without
fear, for she was too engrossed to see through me. 'Do you think
you will finish this one?'
'I may as well go on with it since I have begun it,' my mother
says, so slyly that my sister and I shake our heads at each other
to imply, 'Was there ever such a woman!'
'There are none of those one-legged scoundrels in my books,' I say.
'Better without them,' she replies promptly.
'I wonder, mother, what it is about the man that so infatuates the
'He takes no hold of me,' she insists. 'I would a hantle rather
read your books.'
I offer obligingly to bring one of them to her, and now she looks
at me suspiciously. 'You surely believe I like yours best,' she
says with instant anxiety, and I soothe her by assurances, and
retire advising her to read on, just to see if she can find out how
he misleads the public. 'Oh, I may take a look at it again by-and-
by,' she says indifferently, but nevertheless the probability is
that as the door shuts the book opens, as if by some mechanical
contrivance. I remember how she read 'Treasure Island,' holding it
close to the ribs of the fire (because she could not spare a moment
to rise and light the gas), and how, when bed-time came, and we
coaxed, remonstrated, scolded, she said quite fiercely, clinging to
the book, 'I dinna lay my head on a pillow this night till I see
how that laddie got out of the barrel.'
After this, I think, he was as bewitching as the laddie in the
barrel to her - Was he not always a laddie in the barrel himself,
climbing in for apples while we all stood around, like gamins,
waiting for a bite? He was the spirit of boyhood tugging at the
skirts of this old world of ours and compelling it to come back and
play. And I suppose my mother felt this, as so many have felt it:
like others she was a little scared at first to find herself
skipping again, with this masterful child at the rope, but soon she
gave him her hand and set off with him for the meadow, not an
apology between the two of them for the author left behind. But
near to the end did she admit (in words) that he had a way with him
which was beyond her son. 'Silk and sacking, that is what we are,'
she was informed, to which she would reply obstinately, 'Well,
then, I prefer sacking.'
'But if he had been your son?'
'But he is not.'
'You wish he were?'
'I dinna deny but what I could have found room for him.'
And still at times she would smear him with the name of black (to
his delight when he learned the reason). That was when some podgy
red-sealed blue-crossed letter arrived from Vailima, inviting me to
journey thither. (His directions were, 'You take the boat at San
Francisco, and then my place is the second to the left.') Even
London seemed to her to carry me so far away that I often took a
week to the journey (the first six days in getting her used to the
idea), and these letters terrified her. It was not the finger of
Jim Hawkins she now saw beckoning me across the seas, it was John
Silver, waving a crutch. Seldom, I believe, did I read straight
through one of these Vailima letters; when in the middle I suddenly
remembered who was upstairs and what she was probably doing, and I
ran to her, three steps at a jump, to find her, lips pursed, hands
folded, a picture of gloom.
'I have a letter from - '
'So I have heard.'
'Would you like to hear it?'
'Can you not abide him?'
'I cauna thole him.'
'Is he a black?'
'He is all that.'
Well, Vailima was the one spot on earth I had any great craving to
visit, but I think she always knew I would never leave her.
Sometime, she said, she should like me to go, but not until she was
laid away. 'And how small I have grown this last winter. Look at
my wrists. It canna be long now.' No, I never thought of going,
was never absent for a day from her without reluctance, and never
walked so quickly as when I was going back. In the meantime that
happened which put an end for ever to my scheme of travel. I shall
never go up the Road of Loving Hearts now, on 'a wonderful clear
night of stars,' to meet the man coming toward me on a horse. It
is still a wonderful clear night of stars, but the road is empty.
So I never saw the dear king of us all. But before he had written
books he was in my part of the country with a fishing-wand in his
hand, and I like to think that I was the boy who met him that day
by Queen Margaret's burn, where the rowans are, and busked a fly
for him, and stood watching, while his lithe figure rose and fell
as he cast and hinted back from the crystal waters of Noran-side.
CHAPTER VIII - A PANIC IN THE HOUSE
I was sitting at my desk in London when a telegram came announcing
that my mother was again dangerously ill, and I seized my hat and
hurried to the station. It is not a memory of one night only. A
score of times, I am sure, I was called north thus suddenly, and
reached our little town trembling, head out at railway-carriage
window for a glance at a known face which would answer the question
on mine. These illnesses came as regularly as the backend of the
year, but were less regular in going, and through them all, by
night and by day, I see my sister moving so unwearyingly, so
lovingly, though with failing strength, that I bow my head in
reverence for her. She was wearing herself done. The doctor
advised us to engage a nurse, but the mere word frightened my
mother, and we got between her and the door as if the woman was
already on the stair. To have a strange woman in my mother's room
- you who are used to them cannot conceive what it meant to us.
Then we must have a servant. This seemed only less horrible. My
father turned up his sleeves and clutched the besom. I tossed
aside my papers, and was ready to run the errands. He answered the
door, I kept the fires going, he gave me a lesson in cooking, I
showed him how to make beds, one of us wore an apron. It was not
for long. I was led to my desk, the newspaper was put into my
father's hand. 'But a servant!' we cried, and would have fallen to
again. 'No servant, comes into this house,' said my sister quite
fiercely, and, oh, but my mother was relieved to hear her! There
were many such scenes, a year of them, I daresay, before we
I cannot say which of us felt it most. In London I was used to
servants, and in moments of irritation would ring for them
furiously, though doubtless my manner changed as they opened the
door. I have even held my own with gentlemen in plush, giving one
my hat, another my stick, and a third my coat, and all done with
little more trouble than I should have expended in putting the
three articles on the chair myself. But this bold deed, and other
big things of the kind, I did that I might tell my mother of them
afterwards, while I sat on the end of her bed, and her face beamed
with astonishment and mirth.
From my earliest days I had seen servants. The manse had a
servant, the bank had another; one of their uses was to pounce
upon, and carry away in stately manner, certain naughty boys who
played with me. The banker did not seem really great to me, but
his servant - oh yes. Her boots cheeped all the way down the
church aisle; it was common report that she had flesh every day for
her dinner; instead of meeting her lover at the pump she walked him
into the country, and he returned with wild roses in his
buttonhole, his hand up to hide them, and on his face the troubled
look of those who know that if they take this lady they must give
up drinking from the saucer for evermore. For the lovers were
really common men, until she gave them that glance over the
shoulder which, I have noticed, is the fatal gift of servants.
According to legend we once had a servant - in my childhood I could
show the mark of it on my forehead, and even point her out to other
boys, though she was now merely a wife with a house of her own.
But even while I boasted I doubted. Reduced to life-size she may
have been but a woman who came in to help. I shall say no more
about her, lest some one comes forward to prove that she went home
Never shall I forget my first servant. I was eight or nine, in
velveteen, diamond socks ('Cross your legs when they look at you,'
my mother had said, 'and put your thumb in your pocket and leave
the top of your handkerchief showing'), and I had travelled by rail
to visit a relative. He had a servant, and as I was to be his
guest she must be my servant also for the time being - you may be
sure I had got my mother to put this plainly before me ere I set
off. My relative met me at the station, but I wasted no time in
hoping I found him well. I did not even cross my legs for him, so
eager was I to hear whether she was still there. A sister greeted
me at the door, but I chafed at having to be kissed; at once I made
for the kitchen, where, I knew, they reside, and there she was, and
I crossed my legs and put one thumb in my pocket, and the
handkerchief was showing. Afterwards I stopped strangers on the
highway with an offer to show her to them through the kitchen
window, and I doubt not the first letter I ever wrote told my
mother what they are like when they are so near that you can put
your fingers into them.
But now when we could have servants for ourselves I shrank from the
thought. It would not be the same house; we should have to
dissemble; I saw myself speaking English the long day through. You
only know the shell of a Scot until you have entered his home
circle; in his office, in clubs, at social gatherings where you and
he seem to be getting on so well he is really a house with all the
shutters closed and the door locked. He is not opaque of set
purpose, often it is against his will - it is certainly against
mine, I try to keep my shutters open and my foot in the door but
they will bang to. In many ways my mother was as reticent as
myself, though her manners were as gracious as mine were rough (in
vain, alas! all the honest oiling of them), and my sister was the
most reserved of us all; you might at times see a light through one
of my chinks: she was double-shuttered. Now, it seems to be a law
of nature that we must show our true selves at some time, and as
the Scot must do it at home, and squeeze a day into an hour, what
follows is that there he is self-revealing in the superlative
degree, the feelings so long dammed up overflow, and thus a Scotch
family are probably better acquainted with each other, and more
ignorant of the life outside their circle, than any other family in
the world. And as knowledge is sympathy, the affection existing
between them is almost painful in its intensity; they have not more
to give than their neighbours, but it is bestowed upon a few
instead of being distributed among many; they are reputed
niggardly, but for family affection at least they pay in gold. In
this, I believe, we shall find the true explanation why Scotch
literature, since long before the days of Burns, has been so often
inspired by the domestic hearth, and has treated it with a
Must a woman come into our house and discover that I was not such a
dreary dog as I had the reputation of being? Was I to be seen at
last with the veil of dourness lifted? My company voice is so low
and unimpressive that my first remark is merely an intimation that
I am about to speak (like the whir of the clock before it strikes):
must it be revealed that I had another voice, that there was one
door I never opened without leaving my reserve on the mat? Ah,
that room, must its secrets be disclosed? So joyous they were when
my mother was well, no wonder we were merry. Again and again she
had been given back to us; it was for the glorious to-day we
thanked God; in our hearts we knew and in our prayers confessed
that the fill of delight had been given us, whatever might befall.
We had not to wait till all was over to know its value; my mother
used to say, 'We never understand how little we need in this world
until we know the loss of it,' and there can be few truer sayings,
but during her last years we exulted daily in the possession of her
as much as we can exult in her memory. No wonder, I say, that we
were merry, but we liked to show it to God alone, and to Him only
our agony during those many night-alarms, when lights flickered in
the house and white faces were round my mother's bedside. Not for
other eyes those long vigils when, night about, we sat watching,
nor the awful nights when we stood together, teeth clenched -
waiting - it must be now. And it was not then; her hand became
cooler, her breathing more easy; she smiled to us. Once more I
could work by snatches, and was glad, but what was the result to me
compared to the joy of hearing that voice from the other room?
There lay all the work I was ever proud of, the rest is but honest
craftsmanship done to give her coal and food and softer pillows.
My thousand letters that she so carefully preserved, always
sleeping with the last beneath the sheet, where one was found when
she died - they are the only writing of mine of which I shall ever
boast. I would not there had been one less though I could have
written an immortal book for it.
How my sister toiled - to prevent a stranger's getting any footing
in the house! And how, with the same object, my mother strove to
'do for herself' once more. She pretended that she was always well
now, and concealed her ailments so craftily that we had to probe
'I think you are not feeling well to-day?'
'I am perfectly well.'
'Where is the pain?'
'I have no pain to speak of.'
'Is it at your heart?'
'Is your breathing hurting you?'
'Do you feel those stounds in your head again?'
'No, no, I tell you there is nothing the matter with me.'
'Have you a pain in your side?'
'Really, it's most provoking I canna put my hand to my side without
your thinking I have a pain there.'
'You have a pain in your side!'
'I might have a pain in my side.'
'And you were trying to hide it! Is it very painful?'
'It's - it's no so bad but what I can bear it.'
Which of these two gave in first I cannot tell, though to me fell
the duty of persuading them, for whichever she was she rebelled as
soon as the other showed signs of yielding, so that sometimes I had
two converts in the week but never both on the same day. I would
take them separately, and press the one to yield for the sake of
the other, but they saw so easily through my artifice. My mother
might go bravely to my sister and say, 'I have been thinking it
over, and I believe I would like a servant fine - once we got used
'Did he tell you to say that?' asks my sister sharply.
'I say it of my own free will.'
'He put you up to it, I am sure, and he told you not to let on that
you did it to lighten my work.'
'Maybe he did, but I think we should get one.'
'Not for my sake,' says my sister obstinately, and then my mother
comes ben to me to say delightedly, 'She winna listen to reason!'
But at last a servant was engaged; we might be said to be at the
window, gloomily waiting for her now, and it was with such words as
these that we sought to comfort each other and ourselves:-
'She will go early to her bed.'
'She needna often be seen upstairs.'
'We'll set her to the walking every day.'
'There will be a many errands for her to run. We'll tell her to
take her time over them.'
'Three times she shall go to the kirk every Sabbath, and we'll egg
her on to attending the lectures in the hall.'
'She is sure to have friends in the town. We'll let her visit them
'If she dares to come into your room, mother!'
'Mind this, every one of you, servant or no servant, I fold all the
'She shall not get cleaning out the east room.'
'Nor putting my chest of drawers in order.'
'Nor tidying up my manuscripts.'
'I hope she's a reader, though. You could set her down with a
book, and then close the door canny on her.'
And so on. Was ever servant awaited so apprehensively? And then
she came - at an anxious time, too, when her worth could be put to
the proof at once - and from first to last she was a treasure. I
know not what we should have done without her.
CHAPTER IX - MY HEROINE.
When it was known that I had begun another story my mother might
ask what it was to be about this time.
'Fine we can guess who it is about,' my sister would say pointedly.
'Maybe you can guess, but it is beyond me,' says my mother, with
the meekness of one who knows that she is a dull person.
My sister scorned her at such times. 'What woman is in all his
books?' she would demand.
'I'm sure I canna say,' replies my mother determinedly. 'I thought
the women were different every time.'
'Mother, I wonder you can be so audacious! Fine you know what
woman I mean.'
'How can I know? What woman is it? You should bear in mind that I
hinna your cleverness' (they were constantly giving each other
'I won't give you the satisfaction of saying her name. But this I
will say, it is high time he was keeping her out of his books.'
And then as usual my mother would give herself away unconsciously.
'That is what I tell him,' she says chuckling, 'and he tries to
keep me out, but he canna; it's more than he can do!'
On an evening after my mother had gone to bed, the first chapter
would be brought upstairs, and I read, sitting at the foot of the
bed, while my sister watched to make my mother behave herself, and
my father cried H'sh! when there were interruptions. All would go
well at the start, the reflections were accepted with a little nod
of the head, the descriptions of scenery as ruts on the road that
must be got over at a walking pace (my mother did not care for
scenery, and that is why there is so little of it in my books).
But now I am reading too quickly, a little apprehensively, because
I know that the next paragraph begins with - let us say with,
'Along this path came a woman': I had intended to rush on here in a
loud bullying voice, but 'Along this path came a woman' I read, and
stop. Did I hear a faint sound from the other end of the bed?
Perhaps I did not; I may only have been listening for it, but I
falter and look up. My sister and I look sternly at my mother.
She bites her under-lip and clutches the bed with both hands,
really she is doing her best for me, but first comes a smothered
gurgling sound, then her hold on herself relaxes and she shakes
'That's a way to behave!' cries my sister.
'I cannot help it,' my mother gasps.
'And there's nothing to laugh at.'
'It's that woman,' my mother explains unnecessarily.
'Maybe she's not the woman you think her,' I say, crushed.
'Maybe not,' says my mother doubtfully. 'What was her name?'
'Her name,' I answer with triumph, 'was not Margaret'; but this
makes her ripple again. 'I have so many names nowadays,' she
'H'sh!' says my father, and the reading is resumed.
Perhaps the woman who came along the path was of tall and majestic
figure, which should have shown my mother that I had contrived to
start my train without her this time. But it did not.
'What are you laughing at now?' says my sister severely. 'Do you
not hear that she was a tall, majestic woman?'
'It's the first time I ever heard it said of her,' replies my
'But she is.'
'Ke fy, havers!'
'The book says it.'
'There will be a many queer things in the book. What was she
I have not described her clothes. 'That's a mistake,' says my
mother. 'When I come upon a woman in a book, the first thing I
want to know about her is whether she was good-looking, and the
second, how she was put on.'
The woman on the path was eighteen years of age, and of remarkable
'That settles you,' says my sister.
'I was no beauty at eighteen,' my mother admits, but here my father
interferes unexpectedly. 'There wasna your like in this
countryside at eighteen,' says he stoutly.
'Pooh!' says she, well pleased.
'Were you plain, then?' we ask.
'Sal,' she replies briskly, 'I was far from plain.'
Perhaps in the next chapter this lady (or another) appears in a
'I assure you we're mounting in the world,' I hear my mother
murmur, but I hurry on without looking up. The lady lives in a
house where there are footmen - but the footmen have come on the
scene too hurriedly. 'This is more than I can stand,' gasps my
mother, and just as she is getting the better of a fit of laughter,
'Footman, give me a drink of water,' she cries, and this sets her
off again. Often the readings had to end abruptly because her
mirth brought on violent fits of coughing.
Sometimes I read to my sister alone, and she assured me that she
could not see my mother among the women this time. This she said
to humour me. Presently she would slip upstairs to announce
triumphantly, 'You are in again!'
Or in the small hours I might make a confidant of my father, and
when I had finished reading he would say thoughtfully, 'That lassie
is very natural. Some of the ways you say she had - your mother
had them just the same. Did you ever notice what an extraordinary
woman your mother is?'
Then would I seek my mother for comfort. She was the more ready to
give it because of her profound conviction that if I was found out
- that is, if readers discovered how frequently and in how many
guises she appeared in my books - the affair would become a public
'You see Jess is not really you,' I begin inquiringly.
'Oh no, she is another kind of woman altogether,' my mother says,
and then spoils the compliment by adding naively, 'She had but two
rooms and I have six.'
I sigh. 'Without counting the pantry, and it's a great big
pantry,' she mutters.
This was not the sort of difference I could greatly plume myself
upon, and honesty would force me to say, 'As far as that goes,
there was a time when you had but two rooms yourself - '
'That's long since,' she breaks in. 'I began with an up-the-stair,
but I always had it in my mind - I never mentioned it, but there it
was - to have the down-the-stair as well. Ay, and I've had it this
many a year.'
'Still, there is no denying that Jess had the same ambition.'
'She had, but to her two-roomed house she had to stick all her born
days. Was that like me?'
'No, but she wanted - '
'She wanted, and I wanted, but I got and she didna. That's the
difference betwixt her and me.'
'If that is all the difference, it is little credit I can claim for
having created her.'
My mother sees that I need soothing. 'That is far from being all
the difference,' she would say eagerly. 'There's my silk, for
instance. Though I say it mysel, there's not a better silk in the
valley of Strathmore. Had Jess a silk of any kind - not to speak
of a silk like that?'
'Well, she had no silk, but you remember how she got that cloak
'An eleven and a bit! Hoots, what was that to boast of! I tell
you, every single yard of my silk cost - '
'Mother, that is the very way Jess spoke about her cloak!'
She lets this pass, perhaps without hearing it, for solicitude
about her silk has hurried her to the wardrobe where it hangs.
'Ah, mother, I am afraid that was very like Jess!'
'How could it be like her when she didna even have a wardrobe? I
tell you what, if there had been a real Jess and she had boasted to
me about her cloak with beads, I would have said to her in a
careless sort of voice, "Step across with me, Jess and I'll let you
see something that is hanging in my wardrobe." That would have
lowered her pride!'
'I don't believe that is what you would have done, mother.'
Then a sweeter expression would come into her face. 'No,' she
would say reflectively, 'it's not.'
'What would you have done? I think I know.'
'You canna know. But I'm thinking I would have called to mind that
she was a poor woman, and ailing, and terrible windy about her
cloak, and I would just have said it was a beauty and that I wished
I had one like it.'
'Yes, I am certain that is what you would have done. But oh,
mother, that is just how Jess would have acted if some poorer woman
than she had shown her a new shawl.'
'Maybe, but though I hadna boasted about my silk I would have
wanted to do it.'
'Just as Jess would have been fidgeting to show off her eleven and
It seems advisable to jump to another book; not to my first,
because - well, as it was my first there would naturally be
something of my mother in it, and not to the second, as it was my
first novel and not much esteemed even in our family. (But the
little touches of my mother in it are not so bad.) Let us try the
story about the minister.
My mother's first remark is decidedly damping. 'Many a time in my
young days,' she says, 'I played about the Auld Licht manse, but I
little thought I should live to be the mistress of it!'
'But Margaret is not you.'
'N-no, oh no. She had a very different life from mine. I never
let on to a soul that she is me!'
'She was not meant to be you when I began. Mother, what a way you
have of coming creeping in!'
'You should keep better watch on yourself.'
'Perhaps if I had called Margaret by some other name - '
'I should have seen through her just the same. As soon as I heard
she was the mother I began to laugh. In some ways, though, she's
no' so very like me. She was long in finding out about Babbie.
I'se uphaud I should have been quicker.'
'Babbie, you see, kept close to the garden-wall.'
'It's not the wall up at the manse that would have hidden her from
'She came out in the dark.'
'I'm thinking she would have found me looking for her with a
'And Gavin was secretive.'
'That would have put me on my mettle.'
'She never suspected anything.'
'I wonder at her.'
But my new heroine is to be a child. What has madam to say to
A child! Yes, she has something to say even to that. 'This beats
all!' are the words.
'Come, come, mother, I see what you are thinking, but I assure you
that this time - '
'Of course not,' she says soothingly, 'oh no, she canna be me'; but
anon her real thoughts are revealed by the artless remark, 'I
doubt, though, this is a tough job you have on hand - it is so long
since I was a bairn.'
We came very close to each other in those talks. 'It is a queer
thing,' she would say softly, 'that near everything you write is
about this bit place. You little expected that when you began. I
mind well the time when it never entered your head, any more than
mine, that you could write a page about our squares and wynds. I
wonder how it has come about?'
There was a time when I could not have answered that question, but
that time had long passed. 'I suppose, mother, it was because you
were most at home in your own town, and there was never much
pleasure to me in writing of people who could not have known you,
nor of squares and wynds you never passed through, nor of a
country-side where you never carried your father's dinner in a
flagon. There is scarce a house in all my books where I have not
seemed to see you a thousand times, bending over the fireplace or
winding up the clock.'
'And yet you used to be in such a quandary because you knew nobody
you could make your women-folk out of! Do you mind that, and how
we both laughed at the notion of your having to make them out of
'And now you've gone back to my father's time. It's more than
sixty years since I carried his dinner in a flagon through the long
parks of Kinnordy.'
'I often go into the long parks, mother, and sit on the stile at
the edge of the wood till I fancy I see a little girl coming toward
me with a flagon in her hand.'
'Jumping the burn (I was once so proud of my jumps!) and swinging
the flagon round so quick that what was inside hadna time to fall
out. I used to wear a magenta frock and a white pinafore. Did I
ever tell you that?'
'Mother, the little girl in my story wears a magenta frock and a
'You minded that! But I'm thinking it wasna a lassie in a pinafore
you saw in the long parks of Kinnordy, it was just a gey done auld
'It was a lassie in a pinafore, mother, when she was far away, but
when she came near it was a gey done auld woman.'
'And a fell ugly one!'
'The most beautiful one I shall ever see.'
'I wonder to hear you say it. Look at my wrinkled auld face.'
'It is the sweetest face in all the world.'
'See how the rings drop off my poor wasted finger.'
'There will always be someone nigh, mother, to put them on again.'
'Ay, will there! Well I know it. Do you mind how when you were
but a bairn you used to say, "Wait till I'm a man, and you'll never
have a reason for greeting again?"'
'You used to come running into the house to say, "There's a proud
dame going down the Marywellbrae in a cloak that is black on one
side and white on the other; wait till I'm a man, and you'll have
one the very same." And when I lay on gey hard beds you said,
"When I'm a man you'll lie on feathers." You saw nothing bonny,
you never heard of my setting my heart on anything, but what you
flung up your head and cried, "Wait till I'm a man." You fair
shamed me before the neighbours, and yet I was windy, too. And now
it has all come true like a dream. I can call to mind not one
little thing I ettled for in my lusty days that hasna been put into
my hands in my auld age; I sit here useless, surrounded by the
gratification of all my wishes and all my ambitions, and at times
I'm near terrified, for it's as if God had mista'en me for some
'Your hopes and ambitions were so simple,' I would say, but she did
not like that. 'They werena that simple,' she would answer,
I am reluctant to leave those happy days, but the end must be
faced, and as I write I seem to see my mother growing smaller and
her face more wistful, and still she lingers with us, as if God had
said, 'Child of mine, your time has come, be not afraid.' And she
was not afraid, but still she lingered, and He waited, smiling. I
never read any of that last book to her; when it was finished she
was too heavy with years to follow a story. To me this was as if
my book must go out cold into the world (like all that may come
after it from me), and my sister, who took more thought for others
and less for herself than any other human being I have known, saw
this, and by some means unfathomable to a man coaxed my mother into
being once again the woman she had been. On a day but three weeks
before she died my father and I were called softly upstairs. My
mother was sitting bolt upright, as she loved to sit, in her old
chair by the window, with a manuscript in her hands. But she was
looking about her without much understanding. 'Just to please
him,' my sister whispered, and then in a low, trembling voice my
mother began to read. I looked at my sister. Tears of woe were
stealing down her face. Soon the reading became very slow and
stopped. After a pause, 'There was something you were to say to
him,' my sister reminded her. 'Luck,' muttered a voice as from the
dead, 'luck.' And then the old smile came running to her face like
a lamp-lighter, and she said to me, 'I am ower far gone to read,
but I'm thinking I am in it again!' My father put her Testament in
her hands, and it fell open - as it always does - at the Fourteenth
of John. She made an effort to read but could not. Suddenly she
stooped and kissed the broad page. 'Will that do instead?' she
CHAPTER X - ART THOU AFRAID HIS POWER SHALL FAIL?
For years I had been trying to prepare myself for my mother's
death, trying to foresee how she would die, seeing myself when she
was dead. Even then I knew it was a vain thing I did, but I am
sure there was no morbidness in it. I hoped I should be with her
at the end, not as the one she looked at last but as him from whom
she would turn only to look upon her best-beloved, not my arm but
my sister's should be round her when she died, not my hand but my
sister's should close her eyes. I knew that I might reach her too
late; I saw myself open a door where there was none to greet me,
and go up the old stair into the old room. But what I did not
foresee was that which happened. I little thought it could come
about that I should climb the old stair, and pass the door beyond
which my mother lay dead, and enter another room first, and go on
my knees there.
My mother's favourite paraphrase is one known in our house as
David's because it was the last he learned to repeat. It was also
the last thing she read-
Art thou afraid his power shall fail
When comes thy evil day?
And can an all-creating arm
Grow weary or decay?
I heard her voice gain strength as she read it, I saw her timid
face take courage, but when came my evil day, then at the dawning,
alas for me, I was afraid.
In those last weeks, though we did not know it, my sister was dying
on her feet. For many years she had been giving her life, a little
bit at a time, for another year, another month, latterly for
another day, of her mother, and now she was worn out. 'I'll never
leave you, mother.' - 'Fine I know you'll never leave me.' I
thought that cry so pathetic at the time, but I was not to know its
full significance until it was only the echo of a cry. Looking at
these two then it was to me as if my mother had set out for the new
country, and my sister held her back. But I see with a clearer
vision now. It is no longer the mother but the daughter who is in
front, and she cries, 'Mother, you are lingering so long at the
end, I have ill waiting for you.'
But she knew no more than we how it was to be; if she seemed weary
when we met her on the stair, she was still the brightest, the most
active figure in my mother's room; she never complained, save when
she had to depart on that walk which separated them for half an
hour. How reluctantly she put on her bonnet, how we had to press
her to it, and how often, having gone as far as the door, she came
back to stand by my mother's side. Sometimes as we watched from
the window, I could not but laugh, and yet with a pain at my heart,
to see her hasting doggedly onward, not an eye for right or left,
nothing in her head but the return. There was always my father in
the house, than whom never was a more devoted husband, and often
there were others, one daughter in particular, but they scarce
dared tend my mother - this one snatched the cup jealously from
their hands. My mother liked it best from her. We all knew this.
'I like them fine, but I canna do without you.' My sister, so
unselfish in all other things, had an unwearying passion for
parading it before us. It was the rich reward of her life.
The others spoke among themselves of what must come soon, and they
had tears to help them, but this daughter would not speak of it,
and her tears were ever slow to come. I knew that night and day
she was trying to get ready for a world without her mother in it,
but she must remain dumb; none of us was so Scotch as she, she must
bear her agony alone, a tragic solitary Scotchwoman. Even my
mother, who spoke so calmly to us of the coming time, could not
mention it to her. These two, the one in bed, and the other
bending over her, could only look long at each other, until slowly
the tears came to my sister's eyes, and then my mother would turn
away her wet face. And still neither said a word, each knew so
well what was in the other's thoughts, so eloquently they spoke in
silence, 'Mother, I am loath to let you go,' and 'Oh my daughter,
now that my time is near, I wish you werena quite so fond of me.'
But when the daughter had slipped away my mother would grip my hand
and cry, 'I leave her to you; you see how she has sown, it will
depend on you how she is to reap.' And I made promises, but I
suppose neither of us saw that she had already reaped.
In the night my mother might waken and sit up in bed, confused by
what she saw. While she slept, six decades or more had rolled back
and she was again in her girlhood; suddenly recalled from it she
was dizzy, as with the rush of the years. How had she come into
this room? When she went to bed last night, after preparing her
father's supper, there had been a dresser at the window: what had
become of the salt-bucket, the meal-tub, the hams that should be
hanging from the rafters? There were no rafters; it was a papered
ceiling. She had often heard of open beds, but how came she to be
lying in one? To fathom these things she would try to spring out
of bed and be startled to find it a labour, as if she had been
taken ill in the night. Hearing her move I might knock on the wall
that separated us, this being a sign, prearranged between us, that
I was near by, and so all was well, but sometimes the knocking
seemed to belong to the past, and she would cry, 'That is my father
chapping at the door, I maun rise and let him in.' She seemed to
see him - and it was one much younger than herself that she saw -
covered with snow, kicking clods of it from his boots, his hands
swollen and chapped with sand and wet. Then I would hear - it was
a common experience of the night - my sister soothing her lovingly,
and turning up the light to show her where she was, helping her to
the window to let her see that it was no night of snow, even
humouring her by going downstairs, and opening the outer door, and
calling into the darkness, 'Is anybody there?' and if that was not
sufficient, she would swaddle my mother in wraps and take her
through the rooms of the house, lighting them one by one, pointing
out familiar objects, and so guiding her slowly through the sixty
odd years she had jumped too quickly. And perhaps the end of it
was that my mother came to my bedside and said wistfully, 'Am I an
But with daylight, even during the last week in which I saw her,
she would be up and doing, for though pitifully frail she no longer
suffered from any ailment. She seemed so well comparatively that
I, having still the remnants of an illness to shake off, was to
take a holiday in Switzerland, and then return for her, when we
were all to go to the much-loved manse of her much-loved brother in
the west country. So she had many preparations on her mind, and
the morning was the time when she had any strength to carry them
out. To leave her house had always been a month's work for her, it
must be left in such perfect order, every corner visited and
cleaned out, every chest probed to the bottom, the linen lifted
out, examined and put back lovingly as if to make it lie more
easily in her absence, shelves had to be re-papered, a strenuous
week devoted to the garret. Less exhaustively, but with much of
the old exultation in her house, this was done for the last time,
and then there was the bringing out of her own clothes, and the
spreading of them upon the bed and the pleased fingering of them,
and the consultations about which should be left behind. Ah,
beautiful dream! I clung to it every morning; I would not look when
my sister shook her head at it, but long before each day was done I
too knew that it could never be. It had come true many times, but
never again. We two knew it, but when my mother, who must always
be prepared so long beforehand, called for her trunk and band-boxes
we brought them to her, and we stood silent, watching, while she
The morning came when I was to go away. It had come a hundred
times, when I was a boy, when I was an undergraduate, when I was a
man, when she had seemed big and strong to me, when she was grown
so little and it was I who put my arms round her. But always it
was the same scene. I am not to write about it, of the parting and
the turning back on the stair, and two people trying to smile, and
the setting off again, and the cry that brought me back. Nor shall
I say more of the silent figure in the background, always in the
background, always near my mother. The last I saw of these two was
from the gate. They were at the window which never passes from my
eyes. I could not see my dear sister's face, for she was bending
over my mother, pointing me out to her, and telling her to wave her
hand and smile, because I liked it so. That action was an epitome
of my sister's life.
I had been gone a fortnight when the telegram was put into my
hands. I had got a letter from my sister, a few hours before,
saying that all was well at home. The telegram said in five words
that she had died suddenly the previous night. There was no
mention of my mother, and I was three days' journey from home.
The news I got on reaching London was this: my mother did not
understand that her daughter was dead, and they were waiting for me
to tell her.
I need not have been such a coward. This is how these two died -
for, after all, I was too late by twelve hours to see my mother
Their last night was almost gleeful. In the old days that hour
before my mother's gas was lowered had so often been the happiest
that my pen steals back to it again and again as I write: it was
the time when my mother lay smiling in bed and we were gathered
round her like children at play, our reticence scattered on the
floor or tossed in sport from hand to hand, the author become so
boisterous that in the pauses they were holding him in check by
force. Rather woful had been some attempts latterly to renew those
evenings, when my mother might be brought to the verge of them, as
if some familiar echo called her, but where she was she did not
clearly know, because the past was roaring in her ears like a great
sea. But this night was a last gift to my sister. The joyousness
of their voices drew the others in the house upstairs, where for
more than an hour my mother was the centre of a merry party and so
clear of mental eye that they, who were at first cautious,
abandoned themselves to the sport, and whatever they said, by way
of humorous rally, she instantly capped as of old, turning their
darts against themselves until in self-defence they were three to
one, and the three hard pressed. How my sister must have been
rejoicing. Once again she could cry, 'Was there ever such a
woman!' They tell me that such a happiness was on the daughter's
face that my mother commented on it, that having risen to go they
sat down again, fascinated by the radiance of these two. And when
eventually they went, the last words they heard were, 'They are
gone, you see, mother, but I am here, I will never leave you,' and
'Na, you winna leave me; fine I know that.' For some time
afterwards their voices could be heard from downstairs, but what
they talked of is not known. And then came silence. Had I been at
home I should have been in the room again several times, turning
the handle of the door softly, releasing it so that it did not
creak, and standing looking at them. It had been so a thousand
times. But that night, would I have slipped out again, mind at
rest, or should I have seen the change coming while they slept?
Let it be told in the fewest words. My sister awoke next morning
with a headache. She had always been a martyr to headaches, but
this one, like many another, seemed to be unusually severe.
Nevertheless she rose and lit my mother's fire and brought up her
breakfast, and then had to return to bed. She was not able to
write her daily letter to me, saying how my mother was, and almost
the last thing she did was to ask my father to write it, and not to
let on that she was ill, as it would distress me. The doctor was
called, but she rapidly became unconscious. In this state she was
removed from my mother's bed to another. It was discovered that
she was suffering from an internal disease. No one had guessed it.
She herself never knew. Nothing could be done. In this
unconsciousness she passed away, without knowing that she was
leaving her mother. Had I known, when I heard of her death, that
she had been saved that pain, surely I could have gone home more
bravely with the words,
Art thou afraid His power fail
When comes thy evil day?
Ah, you would think so, I should have thought so, but I know myself
now. When I reached London I did hear how my sister died, but
still I was afraid. I saw myself in my mother's room telling her
why the door of the next room was locked, and I was afraid. God
had done so much, and yet I could not look confidently to Him for
the little that was left to do. 'O ye of little faith!' These are
the words I seem to hear my mother saying to me now, and she looks
at me so sorrowfully.
He did it very easily, and it has ceased to seem marvellous to me
because it was so plainly His doing. My timid mother saw the one
who was never to leave her carried unconscious from the room, and
she did not break down. She who used to wring her hands if her
daughter was gone for a moment never asked for her again, they were
afraid to mention her name; an awe fell upon them. But I am sure
they need not have been so anxious. There are mysteries in life
and death, but this was not one of them. A child can understand
what happened. God said that my sister must come first, but He put
His hand on my mother's eyes at that moment and she was altered.
They told her that I was on my way home, and she said with a
confident smile, 'He will come as quick as trains can bring him.'
That is my reward, that is what I have got for my books.
Everything I could do for her in this life I have done since I was
a boy; I look back through the years and I cannot see the smallest
thing left undone.
They were buried together on my mother's seventy-sixth birthday,
though there had been three days between their deaths. On the last
day, my mother insisted on rising from bed and going through the
house. The arms that had so often helped her on that journey were
now cold in death, but there were others only less loving, and she
went slowly from room to room like one bidding good-bye, and in
mine she said, 'The beautiful rows upon rows of books, ant he said
every one of them was mine, all mine!' and in the east room, which
was her greatest triumph, she said caressingly, 'My nain bonny
room!' All this time there seemed to be something that she wanted,
but the one was dead who always knew what she wanted, and they
produced many things at which she shook her head. They did not
know then that she was dying, but they followed her through the
house in some apprehension, and after she returned to bed they saw
that she was becoming very weak. Once she said eagerly, 'Is that
you, David?' and again she thought she heard her father knocking
the snow off his boots. Her desire for that which she could not
name came back to her, and at last they saw that what she wanted
was the old christening robe. It was brought to her, and she
unfolded it with trembling, exultant hands, and when she had made
sure that it was still of virgin fairness her old arms went round
it adoringly, and upon her face there was the ineffable mysterious
glow of motherhood. Suddenly she said, 'Wha's bairn's dead? is a
bairn of mine dead?' but those watching dared not speak, and then
slowly as if with an effort of memory she repeated our names aloud
in the order in which we were born. Only one, who should have come
third among the ten, did she omit, the one in the next room, but at
the end, after a pause, she said her name and repeated it again and
again and again, lingering over it as if it were the most exquisite
music and this her dying song. And yet it was a very commonplace
They knew now that she was dying. She told them to fold up the
christening robe and almost sharply she watched them put it away,
and then for some time she talked of the long lovely life that had
been hers, and of Him to whom she owed it. She said good-bye to
them all, and at last turned her face to the side where her best-
beloved had lain, and for over an hour she prayed. They only
caught the words now and again, and the last they heard were 'God'
and 'love.' I think God was smiling when He took her to Him, as He
had so often smiled at her during those seventy-six years.
I saw her lying dead, and her face was beautiful and serene. But
it was the other room I entered first, and it was by my sister's
side that I fell upon my knees. The rounded completeness of a
woman's life that was my mother's had not been for her. She would
not have it at the price. 'I'll never leave you, mother.' - 'Fine
I know you'll never leave me.' The fierce joy of loving too much,
it is a terrible thing. My sister's mouth was firmly closed, as if
she had got her way.
And now I am left without them, but I trust my memory will ever go
back to those happy days, not to rush through them, but dallying
here and there, even as my mother wanders through my books. And if
I also live to a time when age must dim my mind and the past comes
sweeping back like the shades of night over the bare road of the
present it will not, I believe, be my youth I shall see but hers,
not a boy clinging to his mother's skirt and crying, 'Wait till I'm
a man, and you'll lie on feathers,' but a little girl in a magenta
frock and a white pinafore, who comes toward me through the long
parks, singing to herself, and carrying her father's dinner in a