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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    HER MAID OF ALL WORK



    And sometimes I was her maid of all work.

    It is early morn, and my mother has come noiselessly into my room.
    I know it is she, though my eyes are shut, and I am only half
    awake. Perhaps I was dreaming of her, for I accept her presence
    without surprise, as if in the awakening I had but seen her go out
    at one door to come in at another. But she is speaking to herself.

    'I'm sweer to waken him - I doubt he was working late - oh, that
    weary writing - no, I maunna waken him.'

    I start up. She is wringing her hands. 'What is wrong?' I cry,
    but I know before she answers. My sister is down with one of the
    headaches against which even she cannot fight, and my mother, who
    bears physical pain as if it were a comrade, is most woebegone when
    her daughter is the sufferer. 'And she winna let me go down the
    stair to make a cup of tea for her,' she groans.

    'I will soon make the tea, mother.'

    'Will you?' she says eagerly. It is what she has come to me for,
    but 'It is a pity to rouse you,' she says.

    'And I will take charge of the house to-day, and light the fires
    and wash the dishes - '

    'Na, oh no; no, I couldna ask that of you, and you an author.'

    'It won't be the first time, mother, since I was an author.'

    'More like the fiftieth!' she says almost gleefully, so I have
    begun well, for to keep up her spirits is the great thing to-day.

    Knock at the door. It is the baker. I take in the bread, looking
    so sternly at him that he dare not smile.

    Knock at the door. It is the postman. (I hope he did not see that
    I had the lid of the kettle in my other hand.)

    Furious knocking in a remote part. This means that the author is
    in the coal cellar.

    Anon I carry two breakfasts upstairs in triumph. I enter the
    bedroom like no mere humdrum son, but after the manner of the
    Glasgow waiter. I must say more about him. He had been my
    mother's one waiter, the only manservant she ever came in contact
    with, and they had met in a Glasgow hotel which she was eager to
    see, having heard of the monstrous things, and conceived them to
    resemble country inns with another twelve bedrooms. I remember how
    she beamed - yet tried to look as if it was quite an ordinary
    experience - when we alighted at the hotel door, but though she
    said nothing I soon read disappointment in her face. She knew how
    I was exulting in having her there, so would not say a word to damp
    me, but I craftily drew it out of her. No, she was very
    comfortable, and the house was grand beyond speech, but - but -
    where was he? he had not been very hearty. 'He' was the landlord;
    she had expected him to receive us at the door and ask if we were
    in good health and how we had left the others, and then she would
    have asked him if his wife was well and how many children they had,
    after which we should all have sat down together to dinner. Two
    chambermaids came into her room and prepared it without a single
    word to her about her journey or on any other subject, and when
    they had gone, 'They are two haughty misses,' said my mother with
    spirit. But what she most resented was the waiter with his swagger
    black suit and short quick steps and the 'towel' over his arm.
    Without so much as a 'Welcome to Glasgow!' he showed us to our
    seats, not the smallest acknowledgment of our kindness in giving
    such munificent orders did we draw from him, he hovered around the
    table as if it would be unsafe to leave us with his knives and
    forks (he should have seen her knives and forks), when we spoke to
    each other he affected not to hear, we might laugh but this uppish
    fellow would not join in. We retired, crushed, and he had the
    final impudence to open the door for us. But though this hurt my
    mother at the time, the humour of our experiences filled her on
    reflection, and in her own house she would describe them with
    unction, sometimes to those who had been in many hotels, often to
    others who had been in none, and whoever were her listeners she
    made them laugh, though not always at the same thing.

    So now when I enter the bedroom with the tray, on my arm is that
    badge of pride, the towel; and I approach with prim steps to inform
    Madam that breakfast is ready, and she puts on the society manner
    and addresses me as 'Sir,' and asks with cruel sarcasm for what
    purpose (except to boast) I carry the towel, and I say 'Is there
    anything more I can do for Madam?' and Madam replies that there is
    one more thing I can do, and that is, eat her breakfast for her.
    But of this I take no notice, for my object is to fire her with the
    spirit of the game, so that she eats unwittingly.

    Now that I have washed up the breakfast things I should be at my
    writing, and I am anxious to be at it, as I have an idea in my
    head, which, if it is of any value, has almost certainly been put
    there by her. But dare I venture? I know that the house has not
    been properly set going yet, there are beds to make, the exterior
    of the teapot is fair, but suppose some one were to look inside?
    What a pity I knocked over the flour-barrel! Can I hope that for
    once my mother will forget to inquire into these matters? Is my
    sister willing to let disorder reign until to-morrow? I determine
    to risk it. Perhaps I have been at work for half an hour when I
    hear movements overhead. One or other of them is wondering why the
    house is so quiet. I rattle the tongs, but even this does not
    satisfy them, so back into the desk go my papers, and now what you
    hear is not the scrape of a pen but the rinsing of pots and pans,
    or I am making beds, and making them thoroughly, because after I am
    gone my mother will come (I know her) and look suspiciously beneath
    the coverlet.

    The kitchen is now speckless, not an unwashed platter in sight,
    unless you look beneath the table. I feel that I have earned time
    for an hour's writing at last, and at it I go with vigour. One
    page, two pages, really I am making progress, when - was that a
    door opening? But I have my mother's light step on the brain, so I
    'yoke' again, and next moment she is beside me. She has not
    exactly left her room, she gives me to understand; but suddenly a
    conviction had come to her that I was writing without a warm mat at
    my feet. She carries one in her hands. Now that she is here she
    remains for a time, and though she is in the arm-chair by the fire,
    where she sits bolt upright (she loved to have cushions on the
    unused chairs, but detested putting her back against them), and I
    am bent low over my desk, I know that contentment and pity are
    struggling for possession of her face: contentment wins when she
    surveys her room, pity when she looks at me. Every article of
    furniture, from the chairs that came into the world with me and
    have worn so much better, though I was new and they were second-
    hand, to the mantle-border of fashionable design which she sewed in
    her seventieth year, having picked up the stitch in half a lesson,
    has its story of fight and attainment for her, hence her
    satisfaction; but she sighs at sight of her son, dipping and
    tearing, and chewing the loathly pen.

    'Oh, that weary writing!'

    In vain do I tell her that writing is as pleasant to me as ever was
    the prospect of a tremendous day's ironing to her; that (to some,
    though not to me) new chapters are as easy to turn out as new
    bannocks. No, she maintains, for one bannock is the marrows of
    another, while chapters - and then, perhaps, her eyes twinkle, and
    says she saucily, 'But, sal, you may be right, for sometimes your
    bannocks are as alike as mine!'

    Or I may be roused from my writing by her cry that I am making
    strange faces again. It is my contemptible weakness that if I say
    a character smiled vacuously, I must smile vacuously; if he frowns
    or leers, I frown or leer; if he is a coward or given to
    contortions, I cringe, or twist my legs until I have to stop
    writing to undo the knot. I bow with him, eat with him, and gnaw
    my moustache with him. If the character be a lady with an
    exquisite laugh, I suddenly terrify you by laughing exquisitely.
    One reads of the astounding versatility of an actor who is stout
    and lean on the same evening, but what is he to the novelist who is
    a dozen persons within the hour? Morally, I fear, we must
    deteriorate - but this is a subject I may wisely edge away from.

    We always spoke to each other in broad Scotch (I think in it
    still), but now and again she would use a word that was new to me,
    or I might hear one of her contemporaries use it. Now is my
    opportunity to angle for its meaning. If I ask, boldly, what was
    chat word she used just now, something like 'bilbie' or 'silvendy'?
    she blushes, and says she never said anything so common, or hoots!
    it is some auld-farrant word about which she can tell me nothing.
    But if in the course of conversation I remark casually, 'Did he
    find bilbie?' or 'Was that quite silvendy?' (though the sense of
    the question is vague to me) she falls into the trap, and the words
    explain themselves in her replies. Or maybe to-day she sees
    whither I am leading her, and such is her sensitiveness that she is
    quite hurt. The humour goes out of her face (to find bilbie in
    some more silvendy spot), and her reproachful eyes - but now I am
    on the arm of her chair, and we have made it up. Nevertheless, I
    shall get no more old-world Scotch out of her this forenoon, she
    weeds her talk determinedly, and it is as great a falling away as
    when the mutch gives place to the cap.

    I am off for my afternoon walk, and she has promised to bar the
    door behind me and open it to none. When I return, - well, the
    door is still barred, but she is looking both furtive and elated.
    I should say that she is burning to tell me something, but cannot
    tell it without exposing herself. Has she opened the door, and if
    so, why? I don't ask, but I watch. It is she who is sly now.

    'Have you been in the east room since you came in?' she asks, with
    apparent indifference.

    'No; why do you ask?'

    'Oh, I just thought you might have looked in.'

    'Is there anything new there?'

    'I dinna say there is, but - but just go and see.'

    'There can't be anything new if you kept the door barred,' I say
    cleverly.

    This crushes her for a moment; but her eagerness that I should see
    is greater than her fear. I set off for the east room, and she
    follows, affecting humility, but with triumph in her eye. How
    often those little scenes took place! I was never told of the new
    purchase, I was lured into its presence, and then she waited
    timidly for my start of surprise.

    'Do you see it?' she says anxiously, and I see it, and hear it, for
    this time it is a bran-new wicker chair, of the kind that whisper
    to themselves for the first six months.

    'A going-about body was selling them in a cart,' my mother begins,
    and what followed presents itself to my eyes before she can utter
    another word. Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door
    argy-bargying with that man. But it would be cruelty to scold a
    woman so uplifted.

    'Fifteen shillings he wanted,' she cries, 'but what do you think I
    beat him down to?'

    'Seven and sixpence?'

    She claps her hands with delight. 'Four shillings, as I'm a living
    woman!' she crows: never was a woman fonder of a bargain.

    I gaze at the purchase with the amazement expected of me, and the
    chair itself crinkles and shudders to hear what it went for (or is
    it merely chuckling at her?). 'And the man said it cost himself
    five shillings,' my mother continues exultantly. You would have
    thought her the hardest person had not a knock on the wall summoned
    us about this time to my sister's side. Though in bed she has been
    listening, and this is what she has to say, in a voice that makes
    my mother very indignant, 'You drive a bargain! I'm thinking ten
    shillings was nearer what you paid.'

    'Four shillings to a penny!' says my mother.

    'I daresay,' says my sister; 'but after you paid him the money I
    heard you in the little bedroom press. What were you doing there?'

    My mother winces. 'I may have given him a present of an old
    topcoat,' she falters. 'He looked ill-happit. But that was after
    I made the bargain.'

    'Were there bairns in the cart?'

    'There might have been a bit lassie in the cart.'

    'I thought as much. What did you give her? I heard you in the
    pantry.'

    'Four shillings was what I got that chair for,' replies my mother
    firmly. If I don't interfere there will be a coldness between them
    for at least a minute. 'There is blood on your finger,' I say to
    my mother.

    'So there is,' she says, concealing her hand.

    'Blood!' exclaims my sister anxiously, and then with a cry of
    triumph, 'I warrant it's jelly. You gave that lassie one of the
    jelly cans!'

    The Glasgow waiter brings up tea, and presently my sister is able
    to rise, and after a sharp fight I am expelled from the kitchen.
    The last thing I do as maid of all work is to lug upstairs the
    clothes-basket which has just arrived with the mangling. Now there
    is delicious linen for my mother to finger; there was always
    rapture on her face when the clothes-basket came in; it never
    failed to make her once more the active genius of the house. I may
    leave her now with her sheets and collars and napkins and fronts.
    Indeed, she probably orders me to go. A son is all very well, but
    suppose he were to tread on that counterpane!

    My sister is but and I am ben - I mean she is in the east end and I
    am in the west - tuts, tuts! let us get at the English of this by
    striving: she is in the kitchen and I am at my desk in the parlour.
    I hope I may not be disturbed, for to-night I must make my hero say
    'Darling,' and it needs both privacy and concentration. In a word,
    let me admit (though I should like to beat about the bush) that I
    have sat down to a love-chapter. Too long has it been avoided,
    Albert has called Marion 'dear' only as yet (between you and me
    these are not their real names), but though the public will
    probably read the word without blinking, it went off in my hands
    with a bang. They tell me - the Sassenach tell me - that in time I
    shall be able without a blush to make Albert say 'darling,' and
    even gather her up in his arms, but I begin to doubt it; the moment
    sees me as shy as ever; I still find it advisable to lock the door,
    and then - no witness save the dog - I 'do' it dourly with my teeth
    clenched, while the dog retreats into the far corner and moans.
    The bolder Englishman (I am told) will write a love-chapter and
    then go out, quite coolly, to dinner, but such goings on are
    contrary to the Scotch nature; even the great novelists dared not.
    Conceive Mr. Stevenson left alone with a hero, a heroine, and a
    proposal impending (he does not know where to look). Sir Walter in
    the same circumstances gets out of the room by making his love-
    scenes take place between the end of one chapter and the beginning
    of the next, but he could afford to do anything, and the small fry
    must e'en to their task, moan the dog as he may. So I have yoked
    to mine when, enter my mother, looking wistful.

    'I suppose you are terrible thrang,' she says.

    'Well, I am rather busy, but - what is it you want me to do?'

    'It would be a shame to ask you.'

    'Still, ask me.'

    'I am so terrified they may be filed.'

    'You want me to - ?'

    'If you would just come up, and help me to fold the sheets!'

    The sheets are folded and I return to Albert. I lock the door, and
    at last I am bringing my hero forward nicely (my knee in the small
    of his back), when this startling question is shot by my sister
    through the key-hole-

    'Where did you put the carrot-grater?'

    It will all have to be done over again if I let Albert go for a
    moment, so, gripping him hard, I shout indignantly that I have not
    seen the carrot-grater.

    'Then what did you grate the carrots on?' asks the voice, and the
    door-handle is shaken just as I shake Albert.

    'On a broken cup,' I reply with surprising readiness, and I get to
    work again but am less engrossed, for a conviction grows on me that
    I put the carrot-grater in the drawer of the sewing-machine.

    I am wondering whether I should confess or brazen it out, when I
    hear my sister going hurriedly upstairs. I have a presentiment
    that she has gone to talk about me, and I basely open my door and
    listen.

    'Just look at that, mother!'

    'Is it a dish-cloth?'

    'That's what it is now.'

    'Losh behears! it's one of the new table-napkins.'

    'That's what it was. He has been polishing the kitchen grate with
    it!'

    (I remember!)

    'Woe's me! That is what comes of his not letting me budge from
    this room. O, it is a watery Sabbath when men take to doing
    women's work!'

    'It defies the face of clay, mother, to fathom what makes him so
    senseless.'

    'Oh, it's that weary writing.'

    'And the worst of it is he will talk to-morrow as if he had done
    wonders.'

    'That's the way with the whole clanjam-fray of them.'

    'Yes, but as usual you will humour him, mother.'

    'Oh, well, it pleases him, you see,' says my mother, 'and we can
    have our laugh when his door's shut.'

    'He is most terribly handless.'

    'He is all that, but, poor soul, he does his best.'
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