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    Chapter 1

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    Chapter 1

    HOW MY MOTHER GOT HER SOFT FACE



    On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in
    our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a
    woman's long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-
    note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there
    was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the
    west room, my father's unnatural coolness when he brought them in
    (but his face was white) - I so often heard the tale afterwards,
    and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the
    coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had
    jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they
    looked. I am sure my mother's feet were ettling to be ben long
    before they could be trusted, and that the moment after she was
    left alone with me she was discovered barefooted in the west room,
    doctoring a scar (which she had been the first to detect) on one of
    the chairs, or sitting on them regally, or withdrawing and re-
    opening the door suddenly to take the six by surprise. And then, I
    think, a shawl was flung over her (it is strange to me to think it
    was not I who ran after her with the shawl), and she was escorted
    sternly back to bed and reminded that she had promised not to
    budge, to which her reply was probably that she had been gone but
    an instant, and the implication that therefore she had not been
    gone at all. Thus was one little bit of her revealed to me at
    once: I wonder if I took note of it. Neighbours came in to see the
    boy and the chairs. I wonder if she deceived me when she affected
    to think that there were others like us, or whether I saw through
    her from the first, she was so easily seen through. When she
    seemed to agree with them that it would be impossible to give me a
    college education, was I so easily taken in, or did I know already
    what ambitions burned behind that dear face? when they spoke of the
    chairs as the goal quickly reached, was I such a newcomer that her
    timid lips must say 'They are but a beginning' before I heard the
    words? And when we were left together, did I laugh at the great
    things that were in her mind, or had she to whisper them to me
    first, and then did I put my arm round her and tell her that I
    would help? Thus it was for such a long time: it is strange to me
    to feel that it was not so from the beginning.

    It is all guess-work for six years, and she whom I see in them is
    the woman who came suddenly into view when they were at an end.
    Her timid lips I have said, but they were not timid then, and when
    I knew her the timid lips had come. The soft face - they say the
    face was not so soft then. The shawl that was flung over her - we
    had not begun to hunt her with a shawl, nor to make our bodies a
    screen between her and the draughts, nor to creep into her room a
    score of times in the night to stand looking at her as she slept.
    We did not see her becoming little then, nor sharply turn our heads
    when she said wonderingly how small her arms had grown. In her
    happiest moments - and never was a happier woman - her mouth did
    not of a sudden begin to twitch, and tears to lie on the mute blue
    eyes in which I have read all I know and would ever care to write.
    For when you looked into my mother's eyes you knew, as if He had
    told you, why God sent her into the world - it was to open the
    minds of all who looked to beautiful thoughts. And that is the
    beginning and end of literature. Those eyes that I cannot see
    until I was six years old have guided me through life, and I pray
    God they may remain my only earthly judge to the last. They were
    never more my guide than when I helped to put her to earth, not
    whimpering because my mother had been taken away after seventy-six
    glorious years of life, but exulting in her even at the grave.

    She had a son who was far away at school. I remember very little
    about him, only that he was a merry-faced boy who ran like a
    squirrel up a tree and shook the cherries into my lap. When he was
    thirteen and I was half his age the terrible news came, and I have
    been told the face of my mother was awful in its calmness as she
    set off to get between Death and her boy. We trooped with her down
    the brae to the wooden station, and I think I was envying her the
    journey in the mysterious wagons; I know we played around her,
    proud of our right to be there, but I do not recall it, I only
    speak from hearsay. Her ticket was taken, she had bidden us
    goodbye with that fighting face which I cannot see, and then my
    father came out of the telegraph-office and said huskily, 'He's
    gone!' Then we turned very quietly and went home again up the
    little brae. But I speak from hearsay no longer; I knew my mother
    for ever now.

    That is how she got her soft face and her pathetic ways and her
    large charity, and why other mothers ran to her when they had lost
    a child. 'Dinna greet, poor Janet,' she would say to them; and
    they would answer, 'Ah, Margaret, but you're greeting yoursel.'
    Margaret Ogilvy had been her maiden name, and after the Scotch
    custom she was still Margaret Ogilvy to her old friends. Margaret
    Ogilvy I loved to name her. Often when I was a boy, 'Margaret
    Ogilvy, are you there?' I would call up the stair.

    She was always delicate from that hour, and for many months she was
    very ill. I have heard that the first thing she expressed a wish
    to see was the christening robe, and she looked long at it and then
    turned her face to the wall. That was what made me as a boy think
    of it always as the robe in which he was christened, but I knew
    later that we had all been christened in it, from the oldest of the
    family to the youngest, between whom stood twenty years. Hundreds
    of other children were christened in it also, such robes being then
    a rare possession, and the lending of ours among my mother's
    glories. It was carried carefully from house to house, as if it
    were itself a child; my mother made much of it, smoothed it out,
    petted it, smiled to it before putting it into the arms of those to
    whom it was being lent; she was in our pew to see it borne
    magnificently (something inside it now) down the aisle to the
    pulpit-side, when a stir of expectancy went through the church and
    we kicked each other's feet beneath the book-board but were
    reverent in the face; and however the child might behave, laughing
    brazenly or skirling to its mother's shame, and whatever the father
    as he held it up might do, look doited probably and bow at the
    wrong time, the christening robe of long experience helped them
    through. And when it was brought back to her she took it in her
    arms as softly as if it might be asleep, and unconsciously pressed
    it to her breast: there was never anything in the house that spoke
    to her quite so eloquently as that little white robe; it was the
    one of her children that always remained a baby. And she had not
    made it herself, which was the most wonderful thing about it to me,
    for she seemed to have made all other things. All the clothes in
    the house were of her making, and you don't know her in the least
    if you think they were out of the fashion; she turned them and made
    them new again, she beat them and made them new again, and then she
    coaxed them into being new again just for the last time, she let
    them out and took them in and put on new braid, and added a piece
    up the back, and thus they passed from one member of the family to
    another until they reached the youngest, and even when we were done
    with them they reappeared as something else. In the fashion! I
    must come back to this. Never was a woman with such an eye for it.
    She had no fashion-plates; she did not need them. The minister's
    wife (a cloak), the banker's daughters (the new sleeve) - they had
    but to pass our window once, and the scalp, so to speak, was in my
    mother's hands. Observe her rushing, scissors in hand, thread in
    mouth, to the drawers where her daughters' Sabbath clothes were
    kept. Or go to church next Sunday, and watch a certain family
    filing in, the boy lifting his legs high to show off his new boots,
    but all the others demure, especially the timid, unobservant-
    looking little woman in the rear of them. If you were the
    minister's wife that day or the banker's daughters you would have
    got a shock. But she bought the christening robe, and when I used
    to ask why, she would beam and look conscious, and say she wanted
    to be extravagant once. And she told me, still smiling, that the
    more a woman was given to stitching and making things for herself,
    the greater was her passionate desire now and again to rush to the
    shops and 'be foolish.' The christening robe with its pathetic
    frills is over half a century old now, and has begun to droop a
    little, like a daisy whose time is past; but it is as fondly kept
    together as ever: I saw it in use again only the other day.

    My mother lay in bed with the christening robe beside her, and I
    peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair and sat
    on it and sobbed. I know not if it was that first day, or many
    days afterwards, that there came to me, my sister, the daughter my
    mother loved the best; yes, more I am sure even than she loved me,
    whose great glory she has been since I was six years old. This
    sister, who was then passing out of her 'teens, came to me with a
    very anxious face and wringing her hands, and she told me to go ben
    to my mother and say to her that she still had another boy. I went
    ben excitedly, but the room was dark, and when I heard the door
    shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood
    still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying,
    for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been
    listless before say, 'Is that you?' I think the tone hurt me, for
    I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously 'Is that
    you?' again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to,
    and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no him, it's just
    me.' Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though
    it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms.

    After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make her forget
    him, which was my crafty way of playing physician, and if I saw any
    one out of doors do something that made the others laugh I
    immediately hastened to that dark room and did it before her. I
    suppose I was an odd little figure; I have been told that my
    anxiety to brighten her gave my face a strained look and put a
    tremor into the joke (I would stand on my head in the bed, my feet
    against the wall, and then cry excitedly, 'Are you laughing,
    mother?') - and perhaps what made her laugh was something I was
    unconscious of, but she did laugh suddenly now and then, whereupon
    I screamed exultantly to that dear sister, who was ever in waiting,
    to come and see the sight, but by the time she came the soft face
    was wet again. Thus I was deprived of some of my glory, and I
    remember once only making her laugh before witnesses. I kept a
    record of her laughs on a piece of paper, a stroke for each, and it
    was my custom to show this proudly to the doctor every morning.
    There were five strokes the first time I slipped it into his hand,
    and when their meaning was explained to him he laughed so
    boisterously, that I cried, 'I wish that was one of hers!' Then he
    was sympathetic, and asked me if my mother had seen the paper yet,
    and when I shook my head he said that if I showed it to her now and
    told her that these were her five laughs he thought I might win
    another. I had less confidence, but he was the mysterious man whom
    you ran for in the dead of night (you flung sand at his window to
    waken him, and if it was only toothache he extracted the tooth
    through the open window, but when it was something sterner he was
    with you in the dark square at once, like a man who slept in his
    topcoat), so I did as he bade me, and not only did she laugh then
    but again when I put the laugh down, so that though it was really
    one laugh with a tear in the middle I counted it as two.

    It was doubtless that same sister who told me not to sulk when my
    mother lay thinking of him, but to try instead to get her to talk
    about him. I did not see how this could make her the merry mother
    she used to be, but I was told that if I could not do it nobody
    could, and this made me eager to begin. At first, they say, I was
    often jealous, stopping her fond memories with the cry, 'Do you
    mind nothing about me?' but that did not last; its place was taken
    by an intense desire (again, I think, my sister must have breathed
    it into life) to become so like him that even my mother should not
    see the difference, and many and artful were the questions I put to
    that end. Then I practised in secret, but after a whole week had
    passed I was still rather like myself. He had such a cheery way of
    whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened her at her
    work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stood with his
    legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers. I
    decided to trust to this, so one day after I had learned his
    whistle (every boy of enterprise invents a whistle of his own) from
    boys who had been his comrades, I secretly put on a suit of his
    clothes, dark grey they were, with little spots, and they fitted me
    many years afterwards, and thus disguised I slipped, unknown to the
    others, into my mother's room. Quaking, I doubt not, yet so
    pleased, I stood still until she saw me, and then - how it must
    have hurt her! 'Listen!' I cried in a glow of triumph, and I
    stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my hands into the pockets
    of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.

    She lived twenty-nine years after his death, such active years
    until toward the end, that you never knew where she was unless you
    took hold of her, and though she was frail henceforth and ever
    growing frailer, her housekeeping again became famous, so that
    brides called as a matter of course to watch her ca'ming and
    sanding and stitching: there are old people still, one or two, to
    tell with wonder in their eyes how she could bake twenty-four
    bannocks in the hour, and not a chip in one of them. And how many
    she gave away, how much she gave away of all she had, and what
    pretty ways she had of giving it! Her face beamed and rippled with
    mirth as before, and her laugh that I had tried so hard to force
    came running home again. I have heard no such laugh as hers save
    from merry children; the laughter of most of us ages, and wears out
    with the body, but hers remained gleeful to the last, as if it were
    born afresh every morning. There was always something of the child
    in her, and her laugh was its voice, as eloquent of the past to me
    as was the christening robe to her. But I had not made her forget
    the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years he was
    not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep
    speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she
    smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might
    vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about
    her, and then said slowly, 'My David's dead!' or perhaps he
    remained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, and then
    she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a man and he was
    still a boy of thirteen, I wrote a little paper called 'Dead this
    Twenty Years,' which was about a similar tragedy in another woman's
    life, and it is the only thing I have written that she never spoke
    about, not even to that daughter she loved the best. No one ever
    spoke of it to her, or asked her if she had read it: one does not
    ask a mother if she knows that there is a little coffin in the
    house. She read many times the book in which it is printed, but
    when she came to that chapter she would put her hands to her heart
    or even over her ears.
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