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AT THE TOP OF THE CHIMNEY-STAIR.
I fear my reader may have thought me too long occupied with the explanatory foundations of my structure: I shall at once proceed to raise its walls of narrative. Whatever further explanations may be necessary, can be applied as buttresses in lieu of a broader base.
One Sunday--it was his custom of a Sunday--I fancy I was then somewhere about six years of age--my uncle rose from the table after our homely dinner, took me by the hand, and led me to the dark door with the long arrow-headed hinges, and up the winding stone stair which I never ascended except with him or my aunt. At the top was another rugged door, and within that, one covered with green baize. The last opened on what had always seemed to me a very paradise of a room. It was old-fashioned enough; but childhood is of any and every age, and it was not old-fashioned to me--only intensely cosy and comfortable. The first thing my eyes generally rested upon was an old bureau, with a book-case on the top of it, the glass-doors of which were lined with faded red silk. The next thing I would see was a small tent-bed, with the whitest of curtains, and enchanting fringes of white ball-tassels. The bed was covered with an equally charming counterpane of silk patchwork. The next object was the genius of the place, in a high, close, easy-chair, covered with some dark stuff, against which her face, surrounded with its widow's cap, of ancient form, but dazzling whiteness, was strongly relieved. How shall I describe the shrunken, yet delicate, the gracious, if not graceful form, and the face from which extreme old age had not wasted half the loveliness? Yet I always beheld it with an indescribable sensation, one of whose elements I can isolate and identify as a faint fear. Perhaps this arose partly from the fact that, in going up the stair, more than once my uncle had said to me, 'You must not mind what grannie says, Willie, for old people will often speak strange things that young people cannot understand. But you must love grannie, for she is a very good old lady.'
'Well, grannie, how are you to-day?' said my uncle, as we entered, this particular Sunday.
I may as well mention at once that my uncle called her grannie in his own right and not in mine, for she was in truth my great-grandmother.
'Pretty well, David, I thank you; but much too long out of my grave,' answered grannie; in no sepulchral tones, however, for her voice, although weak and uneven, had a sound in it like that of one of the upper strings of a violin. The plaintiveness of it touched me, and I crept near her--nearer than, I believe, I had ever yet gone of my own will--and laid my hand upon hers. I withdrew it instantly, for there was something in the touch that made me--not shudder, exactly--but creep. Her hand was smooth and soft, and warm too, only somehow the skin of it seemed dead. With a quicker movement than belonged to her years, she caught hold of mine, which she kept in one of her hands, while she stroked it with the other. My slight repugnance vanished for the time, and I looked up in her face, grateful for a tenderness which was altogether new to me.
'What makes you so long out of your grave, grannie?' I asked.
'They won't let me into it, my dear.'
'Who won't let you, grannie?'
'My own grandson there, and the woman down the stair.'
'But you don't really want to go--do you, grannie?'
'I do want to go, Willie. I ought to have been there long ago. I am very old; so old that I've forgotten how old I am. How old am I?' she asked, looking up at my uncle.
'Nearly ninety-five, grannie; and the older you get before you go the better we shall be pleased, as you know very well.'
'There! I told you,' she said with a smile, not all of pleasure, as she turned her head towards me. 'They won't let me go. I want to go to my grave, and they won't let me! Is that an age at which to keep a poor woman from her grave?'
'But it's not a nice place, is it, grannie?' I asked, with the vaguest ideas of what the grave meant. 'I think somebody told me it was in the churchyard.'
But neither did I know with any clearness what the church itself meant, for we were a long way from church, and I had never been there yet.
'Yes, it is in the churchyard, my dear.'
'Is it a house?' I asked.
'Yes, a little house; just big enough for one.'
'I shouldn't like that.'
'Oh yes, you would.'
'Is it a nice place, then?'
'Yes, the nicest place in the world, when you get to be so old as I am. If they would only let me die!'
'Die, grannie!' I exclaimed. My notions of death as yet were derived only from the fowls brought from the farm, with their necks hanging down long and limp, and their heads wagging hither and thither.
'Come, grannie, you mustn't frighten our little man,' interposed my uncle, looking kindly at us both.
'David!' said grannie, with a reproachful dignity, 'you know what I mean well enough. You know that until I have done what I have to do, the grave that is waiting for me will not open its mouth to receive me. If you will only allow me to do what I have to do, I shall not trouble you long. Oh dear! oh dear!' she broke out, moaning and rocking herself to and fro, 'I am too old to weep, and they will not let me to my bed. I want to go to bed. I want to go to sleep.'
She moaned and complained like a child. My uncle went near and took her hand.
'Come, come, dear grannie!' he said, 'you must not behave like this. You know all things are for the best.'
'To keep a corpse out of its grave!' retorted the old lady, almost fiercely, only she was too old and weak to be fierce. 'Why should you keep a soul that's longing to depart and go to its own people, lingering on in the coffin? What better than a coffin is this withered body? The child is old enough to understand me. Leave him with me for half an hour, and I shall trouble you no longer. I shall at least wait my end in peace. But I think I should die before the morning.'
Ere grannie had finished this sentence, I had shrunk from her again and retreated behind my uncle.
'There!' she went on, 'you make my own child fear me. Don't be frightened, Willie dear; your old mother is not a wild beast; she loves you dearly. Only my grand-children are so undutiful! They will not let my own son come near me.'
How I recall this I do not know, for I could not have understood it at the time. The fact is that during the last few years I have found pictures of the past returning upon me in the most vivid and unaccountable manner, so much so as almost to alarm me. Things I had utterly forgotten--or so far at least that when they return, they must appear only as vivid imaginations, were it not for a certain conviction of fact which accompanies them--are constantly dawning out of the past. Can it be that the decay of the observant faculties allows the memory to revive and gather force? But I must refrain, for my business is to narrate, not to speculate.
My uncle took me by the hand, and turned to leave the room. I cast one look at grannie as he led me away. She had thrown her head back on her chair, and her eyes were closed; but her face looked offended, almost angry. She looked to my fancy as if she were trying but unable to lie down. My uncle closed the doors very gently. In the middle of the stair he stopped, and said in a low voice,
'Willie, do you know that when people grow very old they are not quite like other people?'
'Yes. They want to go to the churchyard,' I answered.
'They fancy things,' said my uncle. 'Grannie thinks you are her own son.'
'And ain't I?' I asked innocently.
'Not exactly,' he answered. 'Your father was her son's son. She forgets that, and wants to talk to you as if you were your grandfather. Poor old grannie! I don't wish you to go and see her without your aunt or me: mind that.'
Whether I made any promise I do not remember; but I know that a new something was mingled with my life from that moment. An air as it were of the tomb mingled henceforth with the homely delights of my life. Grannie wanted to die, and uncle would not let her. She longed for her grave, and they would keep her above-ground. And from the feeling that grannie ought to be buried, grew an awful sense that she was not alive--not alive, that is, as other people are alive, and a gulf was fixed between her and me which for a long time I never attempted to pass, avoiding as much as I could all communication with her, even when my uncle or aunt wished to take me to her room. They did not seem displeased, however, when I objected, and not always insisted on obedience. Thus affairs went on in our quiet household for what seemed to me a very long time.
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