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    Chapter 2

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    Chapter 2
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    WHAT SHE HAD BEEN



    What she had been, what I should be, these were the two great
    subjects between us in my boyhood, and while we discussed the one
    we were deciding the other, though neither of us knew it.

    Before I reached my tenth year a giant entered my native place in
    the night, and we woke to find him in possession. He transformed
    it into a new town at a rate with which we boys only could keep up,
    for as fast as he built dams we made rafts to sail in them; he
    knocked down houses, and there we were crying 'Pilly!' among the
    ruins; he dug trenches, and we jumped them; we had to be dragged by
    the legs from beneath his engines, he sunk wells, and in we went.
    But though there were never circumstances to which boys could not
    adapt themselves in half an hour, older folk are slower in the
    uptake, and I am sure they stood and gaped at the changes so
    suddenly being worked in our midst, and scarce knew their way home
    now in the dark. Where had been formerly but the click of the
    shuttle was soon the roar of 'power,' handlooms were pushed into a
    corner as a room is cleared for a dance; every morning at half-past
    five the town was wakened with a yell, and from a chimney-stack
    that rose high into our caller air the conqueror waved for evermore
    his flag of smoke. Another era had dawned, new customs, new
    fashions sprang into life, all as lusty as if they had been born at
    twenty-one; as quickly as two people may exchange seats, the
    daughter, till now but a knitter of stockings, became the
    breadwinner, he who had been the breadwinner sat down to the
    knitting of stockings: what had been yesterday a nest of weavers
    was to-day a town of girls.

    I am not of those who would fling stones at the change; it is
    something, surely, that backs are no longer prematurely bent; you
    may no more look through dim panes of glass at the aged poor
    weaving tremulously for their little bit of ground in the cemetery.
    Rather are their working years too few now, not because they will
    it so but because it is with youth that the power-looms must be
    fed. Well, this teaches them to make provision, and they have the
    means as they never had before. Not in batches are boys now sent
    to college; the half-dozen a year have dwindled to one, doubtless
    because in these days they can begin to draw wages as they step out
    of their fourteenth year. Here assuredly there is loss, but all
    the losses would be but a pebble in a sea of gain were it not for
    this, that with so many of the family, young mothers among them,
    working in the factories, home life is not so beautiful as it was.
    So much of what is great in Scotland has sprung from the closeness
    of the family ties; it is there I sometimes fear that my country is
    being struck. That we are all being reduced to one dead level,
    that character abounds no more and life itself is less interesting,
    such things I have read, but I do not believe them. I have even
    seen them given as my reason for writing of a past time, and in
    that at least there is no truth. In our little town, which is a
    sample of many, life is as interesting, as pathetic, as joyous as
    ever it was; no group of weavers was better to look at or think
    about than the rivulet of winsome girls that overruns our streets
    every time the sluice is raised, the comedy of summer evenings and
    winter firesides is played with the old zest and every window-blind
    is the curtain of a romance. Once the lights of a little town are
    lit, who could ever hope to tell all its story, or the story of a
    single wynd in it? And who looking at lighted windows needs to
    turn to books? The reason my books deal with the past instead of
    with the life I myself have known is simply this, that I soon grow
    tired of writing tales unless I can see a little girl, of whom my
    mother has told me, wandering confidently through the pages. Such
    a grip has her memory of her girlhood had upon me since I was a boy
    of six.

    Those innumerable talks with her made her youth as vivid to me as
    my own, and so much more quaint, for, to a child, the oddest of
    things, and the most richly coloured picture-book, is that his
    mother was once a child also, and the contrast between what she is
    and what she was is perhaps the source of all humour. My mother's
    father, the one hero of her life, died nine years before I was
    born, and I remember this with bewilderment, so familiarly does the
    weather-beaten mason's figure rise before me from the old chair on
    which I was nursed and now write my books. On the surface he is as
    hard as the stone on which he chiselled, and his face is dyed red
    by its dust, he is rounded in the shoulders and a 'hoast' hunts him
    ever; sooner or later that cough must carry him off, but until then
    it shall not keep him from the quarry, nor shall his chapped hands,
    as long as they can grasp the mell. It is a night of rain or snow,
    and my mother, the little girl in a pinafore who is already his
    housekeeper, has been many times to the door to look for him. At
    last he draws nigh, hoasting. Or I see him setting off to church,
    for he was a great 'stoop' of the Auld Licht kirk, and his mouth is
    very firm now as if there were a case of discipline to face, but on
    his way home he is bowed with pity. Perhaps his little daughter
    who saw him so stern an hour ago does not understand why he
    wrestles so long in prayer to-night, or why when he rises from his
    knees he presses her to him with unwonted tenderness. Or he is in
    this chair repeating to her his favourite poem, 'The Cameronian's
    Dream,' and at the first lines so solemnly uttered,

    'In a dream of the night I was wafted away,'

    she screams with excitement, just as I screamed long afterwards
    when she repeated them in his voice to me. Or I watch, as from a
    window, while she sets off through the long parks to the distant
    place where he is at work, in her hand a flagon which contains his
    dinner. She is singing to herself and gleefully swinging the
    flagon, she jumps the burn and proudly measures the jump with her
    eye, but she never dallies unless she meets a baby, for she was so
    fond of babies that she must hug each one she met, but while she
    hugged them she also noted how their robes were cut, and afterwards
    made paper patterns, which she concealed jealously, and in the
    fulness of time her first robe for her eldest born was fashioned
    from one of these patterns, made when she was in her twelfth year.

    She was eight when her mother's death made her mistress of the
    house and mother to her little brother, and from that time she
    scrubbed and mended and baked and sewed, and argued with the
    flesher about the quarter pound of beef and penny bone which
    provided dinner for two days (but if you think that this was
    poverty you don't know the meaning of the word), and she carried
    the water from the pump, and had her washing-days and her ironings
    and a stocking always on the wire for odd moments, and gossiped
    like a matron with the other women, and humoured the men with a
    tolerant smile - all these things she did as a matter of course,
    leaping joyful from bed in the morning because there was so much to
    do, doing it as thoroughly and sedately as if the brides were
    already due for a lesson, and then rushing out in a fit of
    childishness to play dumps or palaulays with others of her age. I
    see her frocks lengthening, though they were never very short, and
    the games given reluctantly up. The horror of my boyhood was that
    I knew a time would come when I also must give up the games, and
    how it was to be done I saw not (this agony still returns to me in
    dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold
    displeasure); I felt that I must continue playing in secret, and I
    took this shadow to her, when she told me her own experience, which
    convinced us both that we were very like each other inside. She
    had discovered that work is the best fun after all, and I learned
    it in time, but have my lapses, and so had she.

    I know what was her favourite costume when she was at the age that
    they make heroines of: it was a pale blue with a pale blue bonnet,
    the white ribbons of which tied aggravatingly beneath the chin, and
    when questioned about this garb she never admitted that she looked
    pretty in it, but she did say, with blushes too, that blue was her
    colour, and then she might smile, as at some memory, and begin to
    tell us about a man who - but it ended there with another smile
    which was longer in departing. She never said, indeed she denied
    strenuously, that she had led the men a dance, but again the smile
    returned, and came between us and full belief. Yes, she had her
    little vanities; when she got the Mizpah ring she did carry that
    finger in such a way that the most reluctant must see. She was
    very particular about her gloves, and hid her boots so that no
    other should put them on, and then she forgot their hiding-place,
    and had suspicions of the one who found them. A good way of
    enraging her was to say that her last year's bonnet would do for
    this year without alteration, or that it would defy the face of
    clay to count the number of her shawls. In one of my books there
    is a mother who is setting off with her son for the town to which
    he had been called as minister, and she pauses on the threshold to
    ask him anxiously if he thinks her bonnet 'sets' her. A reviewer
    said she acted thus, not because she cared how she looked, but for
    the sake of her son. This, I remember, amused my mother very much.

    I have seen many weary on-dings of snow, but the one I seem to
    recollect best occurred nearly twenty years before I was born. It
    was at the time of my mother's marriage to one who proved a most
    loving as he was always a well-loved husband, a man I am very proud
    to be able to call my father. I know not for how many days the
    snow had been falling, but a day came when the people lost heart
    and would make no more gullies through it, and by next morning to
    do so was impossible, they could not fling the snow high enough.
    Its back was against every door when Sunday came, and none ventured
    out save a valiant few, who buffeted their way into my mother's
    home to discuss her predicament, for unless she was 'cried' in the
    church that day she might not be married for another week, and how
    could she be cried with the minister a field away and the church
    buried to the waist? For hours they talked, and at last some men
    started for the church, which was several hundred yards distant.
    Three of them found a window, and forcing a passage through it,
    cried the pair, and that is how it came about that my father and
    mother were married on the first of March.

    That would be the end, I suppose, if it were a story, but to my
    mother it was only another beginning, and not the last. I see her
    bending over the cradle of her first-born, college for him already
    in her eye (and my father not less ambitious), and anon it is a
    girl who is in the cradle, and then another girl - already a tragic
    figure to those who know the end. I wonder if any instinct told my
    mother that the great day of her life was when she bore this child;
    what I am sure of is that from the first the child followed her
    with the most wistful eyes and saw how she needed help and longed
    to rise and give it. For of physical strength my mother had never
    very much; it was her spirit that got through the work, and in
    those days she was often so ill that the sand rained on the
    doctor's window, and men ran to and fro with leeches, and 'she is
    in life, we can say no more' was the information for those who came
    knocking at the door. 'I am sorrow to say,' her father writes in
    an old letter now before me, 'that Margaret is in a state that she
    was never so bad before in this world. Till Wednesday night she
    was in as poor a condition as you could think of to be alive.
    However, after bleeding, leeching, etc., the Dr. says this morning
    that he is better hoped now, but at present we can say no more but
    only she is alive and in the hands of Him in whose hands all our
    lives are. I can give you no adequate view of what my feelings
    are, indeed they are a burden too heavy for me and I cannot
    describe them. I look on my right and left hand and find no
    comfort, and if it were not for the rock that is higher than I my
    spirit would utterly fall, but blessed be His name who can comfort
    those that are cast down. O for more faith in His supporting grace
    in this hour of trial.'

    Then she is 'on the mend,' she may 'thole thro" if they take great
    care of her, 'which we will be forward to do.' The fourth child
    dies when but a few weeks old, and the next at two years. She was
    her grandfather's companion, and thus he wrote of her death, this
    stern, self-educated Auld Licht with the chapped hands:-

    'I hope you received my last in which I spoke of Dear little Lydia
    being unwell. Now with deep sorrow I must tell you that yesterday
    I assisted in laying her dear remains in the lonely grave. She
    died at 7 o'clock on Wednesday evening, I suppose by the time you
    had got the letter. The Dr. did not think it was croup till late
    on Tuesday night, and all that Medical aid could prescribe was
    done, but the Dr. had no hope after he saw that the croup was
    confirmed, and hard indeed would the heart have been that would not
    have melted at seeing what the dear little creature suffered all
    Wednesday until the feeble frame was quite worn out. She was quite
    sensible till within 2 hours of her death, and then she sunk quite
    low till the vital spark fled, and all medicine that she got she
    took with the greatest readiness, as if apprehensive they would
    make her well. I cannot well describe my feelings on the occasion.
    I thought that the fountain-head of my tears had now been dried up,
    but I have been mistaken, for I must confess that the briny
    rivulets descended fast on my furrowed cheeks, she was such a
    winning Child, and had such a regard for me and always came and
    told me all her little things, and as she was now speaking, some of
    her little prattle was very taking, and the lively images of these
    things intrude themselves more into my mind than they should do,
    but there is allowance for moderate grief on such occasions. But
    when I am telling you of my own grief and sorrow, I know not what
    to say of the bereaved Mother, she hath not met with anything in
    this world before that hath gone so near the quick with her. She
    had no handling of the last one as she was not able at the time,
    for she only had her once in her arms, and her affections had not
    time to be so fairly entwined around her. I am much afraid that
    she will not soon if ever get over this trial. Although she was
    weakly before, yet she was pretty well recovered, but this hath not
    only affected her mind, but her body is so much affected that she
    is not well able to sit so long as her bed is making and hath
    scarcely tasted meat [i.e. food] since Monday night, and till some
    time is elapsed we cannot say how she may be. There is none that
    is not a Parent themselves that can fully sympathise with one in
    such a state. David is much affected also, but it is not so well
    known on him, and the younger branches of the family are affected
    but it will be only momentary. But alas in all this vast ado,
    there is only the sorrow of the world which worketh death. O how
    gladdening would it be if we were in as great bitterness for sin as
    for the loss of a first-born. O how unfitted persons or families
    is for trials who knows not the divine art of casting all their
    cares upon the Lord, and what multitudes are there that when
    earthly comforts is taken away, may well say What have I more? all
    their delight is placed in some one thing or another in the world,
    and who can blame them for unwillingly parting with what they
    esteem their chief good? O that we were wise to lay up treasure
    for the time of need, for it is truly a solemn affair to enter the
    lists with the king of terrors. It is strange that the living lay
    the things so little to heart until they have to engage in that war
    where there is no discharge. O that my head were waters and mine
    eyes a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for my own
    and others' stupidity in this great matter. O for grace to do
    every day work in its proper time and to live above the tempting
    cheating train of earthly things. The rest of the family are
    moderately well. I have been for some days worse than I have been
    for 8 months past, but I may soon get better. I am in the same way
    I have often been in before, but there is no security for it always
    being so, for I know that it cannot be far from the time when I
    will be one of those that once were. I have no other news to send
    you, and as little heart for them. I hope you will take the
    earliest opportunity of writing that you can, and be particular as
    regards Margaret, for she requires consolation.'

    He died exactly a week after writing this letter, but my mother was
    to live for another forty-four years. And joys of a kind never
    shared in by him were to come to her so abundantly, so long drawn
    out that, strange as it would have seemed to him to know it, her
    fuller life had scarce yet begun. And with the joys were to come
    their sweet, frightened comrades pain and grief; again she was to
    be touched to the quick, again and again to be so ill that 'she is
    in life, we can say no more,' but still she had attendants very
    'forward' to help her, some of them unborn in her father's time.

    She told me everything, and so my memories of our little red town
    are coloured by her memories. I knew it as it had been for
    generations, and suddenly I saw it change, and the transformation
    could not fail to strike a boy, for these first years are the most
    impressionable (nothing that happens after we are twelve matters
    very much); they are also the most vivid years when we look back,
    and more vivid the farther we have to look, until, at the end, what
    lies between bends like a hoop, and the extremes meet. But though
    the new town is to me a glass through which I look at the old, the
    people I see passing up and down these wynds, sitting, nightcapped,
    on their barrow-shafts, hobbling in their blacks to church on
    Sunday, are less those I saw in my childhood than their fathers and
    mothers who did these things in the same way when my mother was
    young. I cannot picture the place without seeing her, as a little
    girl, come to the door of a certain house and beat her bass against
    the gav'le-end, or there is a wedding to-night, and the carriage
    with the white-eared horse is sent for a maiden in pale blue, whose
    bonnet-strings tie beneath the chin.
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