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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    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.
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