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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 7
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    R. L. S.



    These familiar initials are, I suppose, the best beloved in recent
    literature, certainly they are the sweetest to me, but there was a
    time when my mother could not abide them. She said 'That Stevenson
    man' with a sneer, and, it was never easy to her to sneer. At
    thought of him her face would become almost hard, which seems
    incredible, and she would knit her lips and fold her arms, and
    reply with a stiff 'oh' if you mentioned his aggravating name. In
    the novels we have a way of writing of our heroine, 'she drew
    herself up haughtily,' and when mine draw themselves up haughtily I
    see my mother thinking of Robert Louis Stevenson. He knew her
    opinion of him, and would write, 'My ears tingled yesterday; I sair
    doubt she has been miscalling me again.' But the more she
    miscalled him the more he delighted in her, and she was informed of
    this, and at once said, 'The scoundrel!' If you would know what
    was his unpardonable crime, it was this: he wrote better books than
    mine.

    I remember the day she found it out, which was not, however, the
    day she admitted it. That day, when I should have been at my work,
    she came upon me in the kitchen, 'The Master of Ballantrae' beside
    me, but I was not reading: my head lay heavy on the table, and to
    her anxious eyes, I doubt not, I was the picture of woe. 'Not
    writing!' I echoed, no, I was not writing, I saw no use in ever
    trying to write again. And down, I suppose, went my head once
    more. She misunderstood, and thought the blow had fallen; I had
    awakened to the discovery, always dreaded by her, that I had
    written myself dry; I was no better than an empty ink-bottle. She
    wrung her hands, but indignation came to her with my explanation,
    which was that while R. L. S. was at it we others were only
    'prentices cutting our fingers on his tools. 'I could never thole
    his books,' said my mother immediately, and indeed vindictively.

    'You have not read any of them,' I reminded her.

    'And never will,' said she with spirit.

    And I have no doubt that she called him a dark character that very
    day. For weeks too, if not for months, she adhered to her
    determination not to read him, though I, having come to my senses
    and seen that there is a place for the 'prentice, was taking a
    pleasure, almost malicious, in putting 'The Master of Ballantrae'
    in her way. I would place it on her table so that it said good-
    morning to her when she rose. She would frown, and carrying it
    downstairs, as if she had it in the tongs, replace it on its book-
    shelf. I would wrap it up in the cover she had made for the latest
    Carlyle: she would skin it contemptuously and again bring it down.
    I would hide her spectacles in it, and lay it on top of the
    clothes-basket and prop it up invitingly open against her tea-pot.
    And at last I got her, though I forget by which of many
    contrivances. What I recall vividly is a key-hole view, to which
    another member of the family invited me. Then I saw my mother
    wrapped up in 'The Master of Ballantrae' and muttering the music to
    herself, nodding her head in approval, and taking a stealthy glance
    at the foot of each page before she began at the top. Nevertheless
    she had an ear for the door, for when I bounced in she had been too
    clever for me; there was no book to be seen, only an apron on her
    lap and she was gazing out at the window. Some such conversation
    as this followed:-

    'You have been sitting very quietly, mother.'

    'I always sit quietly, I never do anything, I'm just a finished
    stocking.'

    'Have you been reading?'

    'Do I ever read at this time of day?'

    'What is that in your lap?'

    'Just my apron.'

    'Is that a book beneath the apron?'

    'It might be a book.'

    'Let me see.'

    'Go away with you to your work.'

    But I lifted the apron. 'Why, it's "The Master of Ballantrae!"' I
    exclaimed, shocked.

    'So it is!' said my mother, equally surprised. But I looked
    sternly at her, and perhaps she blushed.

    'Well what do you think: not nearly equal to mine?' said I with
    humour.

    'Nothing like them,' she said determinedly.

    'Not a bit,' said I, though whether with a smile or a groan is
    immaterial; they would have meant the same thing. Should I put the
    book back on its shelf? I asked, and she replied that I could put
    it wherever I liked for all she cared, so long as I took it out of
    her sight (the implication was that it had stolen on to her lap
    while she was looking out at the window). My behaviour may seem
    small, but I gave her a last chance, for I said that some people
    found it a book there was no putting down until they reached the
    last page.

    'I'm no that kind,' replied my mother.

    Nevertheless our old game with the haver of a thing, as she called
    it, was continued, with this difference, that it was now she who
    carried the book covertly upstairs, and I who replaced it on the
    shelf, and several times we caught each other in the act, but not a
    word said either of us; we were grown self-conscious. Much of the
    play no doubt I forget, but one incident I remember clearly. She
    had come down to sit beside me while I wrote, and sometimes, when I
    looked up, her eye was not on me, but on the shelf where 'The
    Master of Ballantrae' stood inviting her. Mr. Stevenson's books
    are not for the shelf, they are for the hand; even when you lay
    them down, let it be on the table for the next comer. Being the
    most sociable that man has penned in our time, they feel very
    lonely up there in a stately row. I think their eye is on you the
    moment you enter the room, and so you are drawn to look at them,
    and you take a volume down with the impulse that induces one to
    unchain the dog. And the result is not dissimilar, for in another
    moment you two are at play. Is there any other modern writer who
    gets round you in this way? Well, he had given my mother the look
    which in the ball-room means, 'Ask me for this waltz,' and she
    ettled to do it, but felt that her more dutiful course was to sit
    out the dance with this other less entertaining partner. I wrote
    on doggedly, but could hear the whispering.

    'Am I to be a wall-flower?' asked James Durie reproachfully. (It
    must have been leap-year.)

    'Speak lower,' replied my mother, with an uneasy look at me.

    'Pooh!' said James contemptuously, 'that kail-runtle!'

    'I winna have him miscalled,' said my mother, frowning.

    'I am done with him,' said James (wiping his cane with his cambric
    handkerchief), and his sword clattered deliciously (I cannot think
    this was accidental), which made my mother sigh. Like the man he
    was, he followed up his advantage with a comparison that made me
    dip viciously.

    'A prettier sound that,' said he, clanking his sword again, 'than
    the clack-clack of your young friend's shuttle.'

    'Whist!' cried my mother, who had seen me dip.

    'Then give me your arm,' said James, lowering his voice.

    'I dare not,' answered my mother. 'He's so touchy about you.'

    'Come, come,' he pressed her, 'you are certain to do it sooner or
    later, so why not now?'

    'Wait till he has gone for his walk,' said my mother; 'and, forbye
    that, I'm ower old to dance with you.'

    'How old are you?' he inquired.

    'You're gey an' pert!' cried my mother.

    'Are you seventy?'

    'Off and on,' she admitted.

    'Pooh,' he said, 'a mere girl!'

    She replied instantly, 'I'm no' to be catched with chaff'; but she
    smiled and rose as if he had stretched out his hand and got her by
    the finger-tip.

    After that they whispered so low (which they could do as they were
    now much nearer each other) that I could catch only one remark. It
    came from James, and seems to show the tenor of their whisperings,
    for his words were, 'Easily enough, if you slip me beneath your
    shawl.'

    That is what she did, and furthermore she left the room guiltily,
    muttering something about redding up the drawers. I suppose I
    smiled wanly to myself, or conscience must have been nibbling at my
    mother, for in less than five minutes she was back, carrying her
    accomplice openly, and she thrust him with positive viciousness
    into the place where my Stevenson had lost a tooth (as the writer
    whom he most resembled would have said). And then like a good
    mother she took up one of her son's books and read it most
    determinedly. It had become a touching incident to me, and I
    remember how we there and then agreed upon a compromise: she was to
    read the enticing thing just to convince herself of its
    inferiority.

    'The Master of Ballantrae' is not the best. Conceive the glory,
    which was my mother's, of knowing from a trustworthy source that
    there are at least three better awaiting you on the same shelf.
    She did not know Alan Breck yet, and he was as anxious to step down
    as Mr. Bally himself. John Silver was there, getting into his leg,
    so that she should not have to wait a moment, and roaring, 'I'll
    lay to that!' when she told me consolingly that she could not thole
    pirate stories. Not to know these gentlemen, what is it like? It
    is like never having been in love. But they are in the house!
    That is like knowing that you will fall in love to-morrow morning.
    With one word, by drawing one mournful face, I could have got my
    mother to abjure the jam-shelf - nay, I might have managed it by
    merely saying that she had enjoyed 'The Master of Ballantrae.' For
    you must remember that she only read it to persuade herself (and
    me) of its unworthiness, and that the reason she wanted to read the
    others was to get further proof. All this she made plain to me,
    eyeing me a little anxiously the while, and of course I accepted
    the explanation. Alan is the biggest child of them all, and I
    doubt not that she thought so, but curiously enough her views of
    him are among the things I have forgotten. But how enamoured she
    was of 'Treasure Island,' and how faithful she tried to be to me
    all the time she was reading it! I had to put my hands over her
    eyes to let her know that I had entered the room, and even then she
    might try to read between my fingers, coming to herself presently,
    however, to say 'It's a haver of a book.'

    'Those pirate stories are so uninteresting,' I would reply without
    fear, for she was too engrossed to see through me. 'Do you think
    you will finish this one?'

    'I may as well go on with it since I have begun it,' my mother
    says, so slyly that my sister and I shake our heads at each other
    to imply, 'Was there ever such a woman!'

    'There are none of those one-legged scoundrels in my books,' I say.

    'Better without them,' she replies promptly.

    'I wonder, mother, what it is about the man that so infatuates the
    public?'

    'He takes no hold of me,' she insists. 'I would a hantle rather
    read your books.'

    I offer obligingly to bring one of them to her, and now she looks
    at me suspiciously. 'You surely believe I like yours best,' she
    says with instant anxiety, and I soothe her by assurances, and
    retire advising her to read on, just to see if she can find out how
    he misleads the public. 'Oh, I may take a look at it again by-and-
    by,' she says indifferently, but nevertheless the probability is
    that as the door shuts the book opens, as if by some mechanical
    contrivance. I remember how she read 'Treasure Island,' holding it
    close to the ribs of the fire (because she could not spare a moment
    to rise and light the gas), and how, when bed-time came, and we
    coaxed, remonstrated, scolded, she said quite fiercely, clinging to
    the book, 'I dinna lay my head on a pillow this night till I see
    how that laddie got out of the barrel.'

    After this, I think, he was as bewitching as the laddie in the
    barrel to her - Was he not always a laddie in the barrel himself,
    climbing in for apples while we all stood around, like gamins,
    waiting for a bite? He was the spirit of boyhood tugging at the
    skirts of this old world of ours and compelling it to come back and
    play. And I suppose my mother felt this, as so many have felt it:
    like others she was a little scared at first to find herself
    skipping again, with this masterful child at the rope, but soon she
    gave him her hand and set off with him for the meadow, not an
    apology between the two of them for the author left behind. But
    near to the end did she admit (in words) that he had a way with him
    which was beyond her son. 'Silk and sacking, that is what we are,'
    she was informed, to which she would reply obstinately, 'Well,
    then, I prefer sacking.'

    'But if he had been your son?'

    'But he is not.'

    'You wish he were?'

    'I dinna deny but what I could have found room for him.'

    And still at times she would smear him with the name of black (to
    his delight when he learned the reason). That was when some podgy
    red-sealed blue-crossed letter arrived from Vailima, inviting me to
    journey thither. (His directions were, 'You take the boat at San
    Francisco, and then my place is the second to the left.') Even
    London seemed to her to carry me so far away that I often took a
    week to the journey (the first six days in getting her used to the
    idea), and these letters terrified her. It was not the finger of
    Jim Hawkins she now saw beckoning me across the seas, it was John
    Silver, waving a crutch. Seldom, I believe, did I read straight
    through one of these Vailima letters; when in the middle I suddenly
    remembered who was upstairs and what she was probably doing, and I
    ran to her, three steps at a jump, to find her, lips pursed, hands
    folded, a picture of gloom.

    'I have a letter from - '

    'So I have heard.'

    'Would you like to hear it?'

    'No.'

    'Can you not abide him?'

    'I cauna thole him.'

    'Is he a black?'

    'He is all that.'

    Well, Vailima was the one spot on earth I had any great craving to
    visit, but I think she always knew I would never leave her.
    Sometime, she said, she should like me to go, but not until she was
    laid away. 'And how small I have grown this last winter. Look at
    my wrists. It canna be long now.' No, I never thought of going,
    was never absent for a day from her without reluctance, and never
    walked so quickly as when I was going back. In the meantime that
    happened which put an end for ever to my scheme of travel. I shall
    never go up the Road of Loving Hearts now, on 'a wonderful clear
    night of stars,' to meet the man coming toward me on a horse. It
    is still a wonderful clear night of stars, but the road is empty.
    So I never saw the dear king of us all. But before he had written
    books he was in my part of the country with a fishing-wand in his
    hand, and I like to think that I was the boy who met him that day
    by Queen Margaret's burn, where the rowans are, and busked a fly
    for him, and stood watching, while his lithe figure rose and fell
    as he cast and hinted back from the crystal waters of Noran-side.
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