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Ch. 5: A Day Of Her Life

 


I should like to call back a day of her life as it was at this
time, when her spirit was as bright as ever and her hand as eager,
but she was no longer able to do much work. It should not be
difficult, for she repeated herself from day to day and yet did it
with a quaint unreasonableness that was ever yielding fresh
delight. Our love for her was such that we could easily tell what
she would do in given circumstances, but she had always a new way
of doing it.

Well, with break of day she wakes and sits up in bed and is
standing in the middle of the room. So nimble was she in the
mornings (one of our troubles with her) that these three actions
must be considered as one; she is on the floor before you have time
to count them. She has strict orders not to rise until her fire is
lit, and having broken them there is a demure elation on her face.
The question is what to do before she is caught and hurried to bed
again. Her fingers are tingling to prepare the breakfast; she
would dearly love to black-lead the grate, but that might rouse her
daughter from whose side she has slipped so cunningly. She catches
sight of the screen at the foot of the bed, and immediately her
soft face becomes very determined. To guard her from draughts the
screen had been brought here from the lordly east room, where it
was of no use whatever. But in her opinion it was too beautiful
for use; it belonged to the east room, where she could take
pleasant peeps at it; she had objected to its removal, even become
low-spirited. Now is her opportunity. The screen is an unwieldy
thing, but still as a mouse she carries it, and they are well under
weigh when it strikes against the gas-bracket in the passage. Next
moment a reproachful hand arrests her. She is challenged with
being out of bed, she denies it - standing in the passage. Meekly
or stubbornly she returns to bed, and it is no satisfaction to you
that you can say, 'Well, well, of all the women!' and so on, or
'Surely you knew that the screen was brought here to protect you,'
for she will reply scornfully, 'Who was touching the screen?'

By this time I have wakened (I am through the wall) and join them
anxiously: so often has my mother been taken ill in the night that
the slightest sound from her room rouses the house. She is in bed
again, looking as if she had never been out of it, but I know her
and listen sternly to the tale of her misdoings. She is not
contrite. Yes, maybe she did promise not to venture forth on the
cold floors of daybreak, but she had risen for a moment only, and
we just t'neaded her with our talk about draughts - there were no
such things as draughts in her young days - and it is more than she
can do (here she again attempts to rise but we hold her down) to
lie there and watch that beautiful screen being spoilt. I reply
that the beauty of the screen has ever been its miserable defect:
ho, there! for a knife with which to spoil its beauty and make the
bedroom its fitting home. As there is no knife handy, my foot will
do; I raise my foot, and then - she sees that it is bare, she cries
to me excitedly to go back to bed lest I catch cold. For though,
ever careless of herself, she will wander the house unshod, and
tell us not to talk havers when we chide her, the sight of one of
us similarly negligent rouses her anxiety at once. She is willing
now to sign any vow if only I will take my bare feet back to bed,
but probably she is soon after me in hers to make sure that I am
nicely covered up.

It is scarcely six o'clock, and we have all promised to sleep for
another hour, but in ten minutes she is sure that eight has struck
(house disgraced), or that if it has not, something is wrong with
the clock. Next moment she is captured on her way downstairs to
wind up the clock. So evidently we must be up and doing, and as we
have no servant, my sister disappears into the kitchen, having
first asked me to see that 'that woman' lies still, and 'that
woman' calls out that she always does lie still, so what are we
blethering about?

She is up now, and dressed in her thick maroon wrapper; over her
shoulders (lest she should stray despite our watchfulness) is a
shawl, not placed there by her own hands, and on her head a
delicious mutch. O that I could sing the paean of the white mutch
(and the dirge of the elaborate black cap) from the day when she
called witchcraft to her aid and made it out of snow-flakes, and
the dear worn hands that washed it tenderly in a basin, and the
starching of it, and the finger-iron for its exquisite frills that
looked like curls of sugar, and the sweet bands with which it tied
beneath the chin! The honoured snowy mutch, how I love to see it
smiling to me from the doors and windows of the poor; it is always
smiling - sometimes maybe a wavering wistful smile, as if a tear-
drop lay hidden among, the frills. A hundred times I have taken
the characterless cap from my mother's head and put the mutch in
its place and tied the bands beneath her chin, while she protested
but was well pleased. For in her heart she knew what suited her
best and would admit it, beaming, when I put a mirror into her
hands and told her to look; but nevertheless the cap cost no less
than so-and-so, whereas - Was that a knock at the door? She is
gone, to put on her cap!

She begins the day by the fireside with the New Testament in her
hands, an old volume with its loose pages beautifully refixed, and
its covers sewn and resewn by her, so that you would say it can
never fall to pieces. It is mine now, and to me the black threads
with which she stitched it are as part of the contents. Other
books she read in the ordinary manner, but this one differently,
her lips moving with each word as if she were reading aloud, and
her face very solemn. The Testament lies open on her lap long
after she has ceased to read, and the expression of her face has
not changed.

I have seen her reading other books early in the day but never
without a guilty look on her face, for she thought reading was
scarce respectable until night had come. She spends the forenoon
in what she calls doing nothing, which may consist in stitching so
hard that you would swear she was an over-worked seamstress at it
for her life, or you will find her on a table with nails in her
mouth, and anon she has to be chased from the garret (she has
suddenly decided to change her curtains), or she is under the bed
searching for band-boxes and asking sternly where we have put that
bonnet. On the whole she is behaving in a most exemplary way to-
day (not once have we caught her trying to go out into the washing-
house), and we compliment her at dinner-time, partly because she
deserves it, and partly to make her think herself so good that she
will eat something, just to maintain her new character. I question
whether one hour of all her life was given to thoughts of food; in
her great days to eat seemed to her to be waste of time, and
afterwards she only ate to boast of it, as something she had done
to please us. She seldom remembered whether she had dined, but
always presumed she had, and while she was telling me in all good
faith what the meal consisted of, it might be brought in. When in
London I had to hear daily what she was eating, and perhaps she had
refused all dishes until they produced the pen and ink. These were
flourished before her, and then she would say with a sigh, 'Tell
him I am to eat an egg.' But they were not so easily deceived;
they waited, pen in hand, until the egg was eaten.

She never 'went for a walk' in her life. Many long trudges she had
as a girl when she carried her father's dinner in a flagon to the
country place where he was at work, but to walk with no end save
the good of your health seemed a very droll proceeding to her. In
her young days, she was positive, no one had ever gone for a walk,
and she never lost the belief that it was an absurdity introduced
by a new generation with too much time on their hands. That they
enjoyed it she could not believe; it was merely a form of showing
off, and as they passed her window she would remark to herself with
blasting satire, 'Ay, Jeames, are you off for your walk?' and add
fervently, 'Rather you than me!' I was one of those who walked,
and though she smiled, and might drop a sarcastic word when she saw
me putting on my boots, it was she who had heated them in
preparation for my going. The arrangement between us was that she
should lie down until my return, and to ensure its being carried
out I saw her in bed before I started, but with the bang of the
door she would be at the window to watch me go: there is one spot
on the road where a thousand times I have turned to wave my stick
to her, while she nodded and smiled and kissed her hand to me.
That kissing of the hand was the one English custom she had
learned.

In an hour or so I return, and perhaps find her in bed, according
to promise, but still I am suspicious. The way to her detection is
circuitous.

'I'll need to be rising now,' she says, with a yawn that may be
genuine.

'How long have you been in bed?'

'You saw me go.'

'And then I saw you at the window. Did you go straight back to
bed?'

'Surely I had that much sense.'

'The truth!'

'I might have taken a look at the clock first.'

'It is a terrible thing to have a mother who prevaricates. Have
you been lying down ever since I left?'

'Thereabout.'

'What does that mean exactly?'

'Off and on.'

'Have you been to the garret?'

'What should I do in the garret?'

'But have you?'

'I might just have looked up the garret stair.'

'You have been redding up the garret again!'

'Not what you could call a redd up.'

'O, woman, woman, I believe you have not been in bed at all!'

'You see me in it.'

'My opinion is that you jumped into bed when you heard me open the
door.'

'Havers.'

'Did you?'

'No.'

'Well, then, when you heard me at the gate?'

'It might have been when I heard you at the gate.'

As daylight goes she follows it with her sewing to the window, and
gets another needleful out of it, as one may run after a departed
visitor for a last word, but now the gas is lit, and no longer is
it shameful to sit down to literature. If the book be a story by
George Eliot or Mrs. Oliphant, her favourites (and mine) among
women novelists, or if it be a Carlyle, and we move softly, she
will read, entranced, for hours. Her delight in Carlyle was so
well known that various good people would send her books that
contained a page about him; she could place her finger on any
passage wanted in the biography as promptly as though she were
looking for some article in her own drawer, and given a date she
was often able to tell you what they were doing in Cheyne Row that
day. Carlyle, she decided, was not so much an ill man to live with
as one who needed a deal of managing, but when I asked if she
thought she could have managed him she only replied with a modest
smile that meant 'Oh no!' but had the face of 'Sal, I would have
liked to try.'

One lady lent her some scores of Carlyle letters that have never
been published, and crabbed was the writing, but though my mother
liked to have our letters read aloud to her, she read every one of
these herself, and would quote from them in her talk. Side by side
with the Carlyle letters, which show him in his most gracious
light, were many from his wife to a friend, and in one of these a
romantic adventure is described - I quote from memory, and it is a
poor memory compared to my mother's, which registered everything by
a method of her own: 'What might be the age of Bell Tibbits? Well,
she was born the week I bought the boiler, so she'll be one-and-
fifty (no less!) come Martinmas.' Mrs. Carlyle had got into the
train at a London station and was feeling very lonely, for the
journey to Scotland lay before her and no one had come to see her
off. Then, just as the train was starting, a man jumped into the
carriage, to her regret until she saw his face, when, behold, they
were old friends, and the last time they met (I forget how many
years before) he had asked her to be his wife. He was very nice,
and if I remember aright, saw her to her journey's end, though he
had intended to alight at some half-way place. I call this an
adventure, and I am sure it seemed to my mother to be the most
touching and memorable adventure that can come into a woman's life.
'You see he hadna forgot,' she would say proudly, as if this was a
compliment in which all her sex could share, and on her old tender
face shone some of the elation with which Mrs. Carlyle wrote that
letter.

But there were times, she held, when Carlyle must have made his
wife a glorious woman. 'As when?' I might inquire.

'When she keeked in at his study door and said to herself, "The
whole world is ringing with his fame, and he is my man!"'

'And then,' I might point out, 'he would roar to her to shut the
door.'

'Pooh!' said my mother, 'a man's roar is neither here nor there.'
But her verdict as a whole was, 'I would rather have been his
mother than his wife.'

So we have got her into her chair with the Carlyles, and all is
well. Furthermore, 'to mak siccar,' my father has taken the
opposite side of the fireplace and is deep in the latest five
columns of Gladstone, who is his Carlyle. He is to see that she
does not slip away fired by a conviction, which suddenly overrides
her pages, that the kitchen is going to rack and ruin for want of
her, and she is to recall him to himself should he put his foot in
the fire and keep it there, forgetful of all save his hero's
eloquence. (We were a family who needed a deal of watching.) She
is not interested in what Mr. Gladstone has to say; indeed she
could never be brought to look upon politics as of serious concern
for grown folk (a class in which she scarcely included man), and
she gratefully gave up reading 'leaders' the day I ceased to write
them. But like want of reasonableness, a love for having the last
word, want of humour and the like, politics were in her opinion a
mannish attribute to be tolerated, and Gladstone was the name of
the something which makes all our sex such queer characters. She
had a profound faith in him as an aid to conversation, and if there
were silent men in the company would give him to them to talk
about, precisely as she divided a cake among children. And then,
with a motherly smile, she would leave them to gorge on him. But
in the idolising of Gladstone she recognised, nevertheless, a
certain inevitability, and would no more have tried to contend with
it than to sweep a shadow off the floor. Gladstone was, and there
was an end of it in her practical philosophy. Nor did she accept
him coldly; like a true woman she sympathised with those who
suffered severely, and they knew it and took counsel of her in the
hour of need. I remember one ardent Gladstonian who, as a general
election drew near, was in sore straits indeed, for he disbelieved
in Home Rule, and yet how could he vote against 'Gladstone's man'?
His distress was so real that it gave him a hang-dog appearance.
He put his case gloomily before her, and until the day of the
election she riddled him with sarcasm; I think he only went to her
because he found a mournful enjoyment in seeing a false Gladstonian
tortured.

It was all such plain-sailing for him, she pointed out; he did not
like this Home Rule, and therefore he must vote against it.

She put it pitiful clear, he replied with a groan.

But she was like another woman to him when he appeared before her
on his way to the polling-booth.

'This is a watery Sabbath to you, I'm thinking,' she said
sympathetically, but without dropping her wires - for Home Rule or
no Home Rule that stocking-foot must be turned before twelve
o'clock.

A watery Sabbath means a doleful day, and 'A watery Sabbath it is,'
he replied with feeling. A silence followed, broken only by the
click of the wires. Now and again he would mutter, 'Ay, well, I'll
be going to vote - little did I think the day would come,' and so
on, but if he rose it was only to sit down again, and at last she
crossed over to him and said softly, (no sarcasm in her voice now),
'Away with you, and vote for Gladstone's man!' He jumped up and
made off without a word, but from the east window we watched him
strutting down the brae. I laughed, but she said, 'I'm no sure
that it's a laughing matter,' and afterwards, 'I would have liked
fine to be that Gladstone's mother.'

It is nine o'clock now, a quarter-past nine, half-past nine - all
the same moment to me, for I am at a sentence that will not write.
I know, though I can't hear, what my sister has gone upstairs to
say to my mother:-

'I was in at him at nine, and he said, "In five minutes," so I put
the steak on the brander, but I've been in thrice since then, and
every time he says, "In five minutes," and when I try to take the
table-cover off, he presses his elbows hard on it, and growls. His
supper will be completely spoilt.'

'Oh, that weary writing!'

'I can do no more, mother, so you must come down and stop him.'

'I have no power over him,' my mother says, but she rises smiling,
and presently she is opening my door.

'In five minutes!' I cry, but when I see that it is she I rise and
put my arm round her. 'What a full basket!' she says, looking at
the waste-paper basket, which contains most of my work of the night
and with a dear gesture she lifts up a torn page and kisses it.
'Poor thing,' she says to it, 'and you would have liked so fine to
be printed!' and she puts her hand over my desk to prevent my
writing more.

'In the last five minutes,' I begin, 'one can often do more than in
the first hour.'

'Many a time I've said it in my young days,' she says slowly.

'And proved it, too!' cries a voice from the door, the voice of one
who was prouder of her even than I; it is true, and yet almost
unbelievable, that any one could have been prouder of her than I.

'But those days are gone,' my mother says solemnly, 'gone to come
back no more. You'll put by your work now, man, and have your
supper, and then you'll come up and sit beside your mother for a
whiley, for soon you'll be putting her away in the kirk-yard.'

I hear such a little cry from near the door.

So my mother and I go up the stair together. 'We have changed
places,' she says; 'that was just how I used to help you up, but
I'm the bairn now.'

She brings out the Testament again; it was always lying within
reach; it is the lock of hair she left me when she died. And when
she has read for a long time she 'gives me a look,' as we say in
the north, and I go out, to leave her alone with God. She had been
but a child when her mother died, and so she fell early into the
way of saying her prayers with no earthly listener. Often and
often I have found her on her knees, but I always went softly away,
closing the door. I never heard her pray, but I know very well how
she prayed, and that, when that door was shut, there was not a day
in God's sight between the worn woman and the little child.

 

James M. Barrie

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