On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, andin our little house it was an event, the first great victory in awoman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, thepound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxietythere was about the purchase, the show they made in possession ofthe west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when hebrought them in (but his face was white) — I so often heardthe tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similartriumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something Iremember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, andrun ben to see how they looked. I am sure my mother’sfeet were ettling to be ben long before they could be trusted,and that the moment after she was left alone with me she wasdiscovered barefooted in the west room, doctoring a scar (whichshe had been the first to detect) on one of the chairs, orsitting on them regally, or withdrawing and re-opening the doorsuddenly to take the six by surprise. And then, I think, ashawl was flung over her (it is strange to me to think it was notI who ran after her with the shawl), and she was escorted sternlyback to bed and reminded that she had promised not to budge, towhich her reply was probably that she had been gone but aninstant, and the implication that therefore she had not been goneat all. Thus was one little bit of her revealed to me atonce: I wonder if I took note of it. Neighbours came in tosee the boy and the chairs. I wonder if she deceived mewhen she affected to think that there were others like us, orwhether I saw through her from the first, she was so easily seenthrough. When she seemed to agree with them that it wouldbe impossible to give me a college education, was I so easilytaken in, or did I know already what ambitions burned behind thatdear face? when they spoke of the chairs as the goal quicklyreached, was I such a newcomer that her timid lips must say‘They are but a beginning’ before I heard thewords? And when we were left together, did I laugh at thegreat things that were in her mind, or had she to whisper them tome first, and then did I put my arm round her and tell her that Iwould help? Thus it was for such a long time: it is strangeto me to feel that it was not so from the beginning.
It is all guesswork for six years, and she whom I see in themis the woman who came suddenly into view when they were at anend. Her timid lips I have said, but they were not timidthen, and when I knew her the timid lips had come. The softface — they say the face was not so soft then. Theshawl that was flung over her — we had not begun to hunt herwith a shawl, nor to make our bodies a screen between her and thedraughts, nor to creep into her room a score of times in thenight to stand looking at her as she slept. We did not seeher becoming little then, nor sharply turn our heads when shesaid wonderingly how small her arms had grown. In herhappiest moments — and never was a happier woman — hermouth did not of a sudden begin to twitch, and tears to lie onthe mute blue eyes in which I have read all I know and would evercare to write. For when you looked into my mother’seyes you knew, as if He had told you, why God sent her into theworld — it was to open the minds of all who looked tobeautiful thoughts. And that is the beginning and end ofliterature. Those eyes that I cannot see until I was sixyears old have guided me through life, and I pray God they mayremain my only earthly judge to the last. They were nevermore my guide than when I helped to put her to earth, notwhimpering because my mother had been taken away afterseventy-six glorious years of life, but exulting in her even atthe grave.
She had a son who was far away at school. I remembervery little about him, only that he was a merry-faced boy who ranlike a squirrel up a tree and shook the cherries into mylap. When he was thirteen and I was half his age theterrible news came, and I have been told the face of my motherwas awful in its calmness as she set off to get between Death andher boy. We trooped with her down the brae to the woodenstation, and I think I was envying her the journey in themysterious wagons; I know we played around her, proud of ourright to be there, but I do not recall it, I only speak fromhearsay. Her ticket was taken, she had bidden us good-byewith that fighting face which I cannot see, and then my fathercame out of the telegraph office and said huskily,‘He’s gone!’ Then we turned very quietlyand went home again up the little brae. But I speak fromhearsay no longer; I knew my mother for ever now.
That is how she got her soft face and her pathetic ways andher large charity, and why other mothers ran to her when they hadlost a child. ‘Dinna greet, poor Janet,’ shewould say to them; and they would answer, ‘Ah, Margaret,but you’re greeting yourself.’ Margaret Ogilvyhad been her maiden name, and after the Scotch custom she wasstill Margaret Ogilvy to her old friends. Margaret Ogilvy Iloved to name her. Often when I was a boy, ‘MargaretOgilvy, are you there?’ I would call up thestair.
She was always delicate from that hour, and for many monthsshe was very ill. I have heard that the first thing sheexpressed a wish to see was the christening robe, and she lookedlong at it and then turned her face to the wall. That waswhat made me as a boy think of it always as the robe in which hewas christened, but I knew later that we had all been christenedin it, from the oldest of the family to the youngest, betweenwhom stood twenty years. Hundreds of other children werechristened in it also, such robes being then a rare possession,and the lending of ours among my mother’s glories. Itwas carried carefully from house to house, as if it were itself achild; my mother made much of it, smoothed it out, petted it,smiled to it before putting it into the arms of those to whom itwas being lent; she was in our pew to see it borne magnificently(something inside it now) down the aisle to the pulpit-side, whena stir of expectancy went through the church and we kicked eachother’s feet beneath the book-board but were reverent inthe face; and however the child might behave, laughing brazenlyor skirling to its mother’s shame, and whatever the fatheras he held it up might do, look doited probably and bow at thewrong time, the christening robe of long experience helped themthrough. And when it was brought back to her she took it inher arms as softly as if it might be asleep, and unconsciouslypressed it to her breast: there was never anything in the housethat 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 wonderfulthing about it to me, for she seemed to have made all otherthings. All the clothes in the house were of her making,and you don’t know her in the least if you think they wereout of the fashion; she turned them and made them new again, shebeat them and made them new again, and then she coaxed them intobeing new again just for the last time, she let them out and tookthem in and put on new braid, and added a piece up the back, andthus they passed from one member of the family to another untilthey reached the youngest, and even when we were done with themthey reappeared as something else. In the fashion! Imust come back to this. Never was a woman with such an eyefor it. She had no fashion-plates; she did not needthem. The minister’s wife (a cloak), thebanker’s daughters (the new sleeve) — they had but topass our window once, and the scalp, so to speak, was in mymother’s hands. Observe her rushing, scissors inhand, thread in mouth, to the drawers where her daughters’Sabbath clothes were kept. Or go to church next Sunday, andwatch a certain family filing in, the boy lifting his legs highto show off his new boots, but all the others demure, especiallythe timid, unobservant-looking little woman in the rear ofthem. If you were the minister’s wife that day or thebanker’s daughters you would have got a shock. Butshe bought the christening robe, and when I used to ask why, shewould beam and look conscious, and say she wanted to beextravagant once. And she told me, still smiling, that themore a woman was given to stitching and making things forherself, the greater was her passionate desire now and again torush to the shops and ‘be foolish.’ Thechristening robe with its pathetic frills is over half a centuryold now, and has begun to droop a little, like a daisy whose timeis past; but it is as fondly kept together as ever: I saw it inuse again only the other day.
My mother lay in bed with the christening robe beside her, andI peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair andsat on it and sobbed. I know not if it was that first day,or many days afterwards, that there came to me, my sister, thedaughter my mother loved the best; yes, more I am sure even thanshe loved me, whose great glory she has been since I was sixyears old. This sister, who was then passing out of her‘teens, came to me with a very anxious face and wringingher hands, and she told me to go ben to my mother and say to herthat she still had another boy. I went ben excitedly, butthe room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no soundcome from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still. Isuppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for aftera time I heard a listless voice that had never been listlessbefore say, ‘Is that you?’ I think the tonehurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said moreanxiously ‘Is that you?’ again. I thought itwas the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a littlelonely voice, ‘No, it’s no him, it’s justme.’ Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed,and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out herarms.
After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make herforget him, which was my crafty way of playing physician, and ifI saw any one out of doors do something that made the otherslaugh I immediately hastened to that dark room and did it beforeher. I suppose I was an odd little figure; I have been toldthat my anxiety to brighten her gave my face a strained look andput a tremor into the joke (I would stand on my head in the bed,my feet against the wall, and then cry excitedly, ‘Are youlaughing, mother?’) — and perhaps what made her laughwas something I was unconscious of, but she did laugh suddenlynow and then, whereupon I screamed exultantly to that dearsister, who was ever in waiting, to come and see the sight, butby the time she came the soft face was wet again. Thus Iwas deprived of some of my glory, and I remember once only makingher laugh before witnesses. I kept a record of her laughson a piece of paper, a stroke for each, and it was my custom toshow this proudly to the doctor every morning. There werefive strokes the first time I slipped it into his hand, and whentheir 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 thepaper yet, and when I shook my head he said that if I showed itto her now and told her that these were her five laughs hethought I might win another. I had less confidence, but hewas the mysterious man whom you ran for in the dead of night (youflung sand at his window to waken him, and if it was onlytoothache he extracted the tooth through the open window, butwhen it was something sterner he was with you in the dark squareat once, like a man who slept in his topcoat), so I did as hebade me, and not only did she laugh then but again when I put thelaugh down, so that though it was really one laugh with a tear inthe middle I counted it as two.
It was doubtless that same sister who told me not to sulk whenmy mother lay thinking of him, but to try instead to get her totalk about him. I did not see how this could make her themerry mother she used to be, but I was told that if I could notdo it nobody could, and this made me eager to begin. Atfirst, they say, I was often jealous, stopping her fond memorieswith the cry, ‘Do you mind nothing about me?’ butthat did not last; its place was taken by an intense desire(again, I think, my sister must have breathed it into life) tobecome so like him that even my mother should not see thedifference, and many and artful were the questions I put to thatend. Then I practised in secret, but after a whole week hadpassed I was still rather like myself. He had such a cheeryway of whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened herat her work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stoodwith his legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of hisknickerbockers. I decided to trust to this, so one dayafter I had learned his whistle (every boy of enterprise inventsa whistle of his own) from boys who had been his comrades, Isecretly put on a suit of his clothes, dark grey they were, withlittle spots, and they fitted me many years afterwards, and thusdisguised I slipped, unknown to the others, into mymother’s room. Quaking, I doubt not, yet so pleased,I stood still until she saw me, and then — how it must havehurt her! ‘Listen!’ I cried in a glow oftriumph, and I stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my handsinto the pockets of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.
She lived twenty-nine years after his death, such active yearsuntil toward the end, that you never knew where she was unlessyou took hold of her, and though she was frail henceforth and ever-growing frailer, her housekeeping again became famous, sothat brides called as a matter of course to watch herca’ming and sanding and stitching: there are old peoplestill, one or two, to tell with wonder in their eyes how shecould bake twenty-four bannocks in the hour, and not a chip inone of them. And how many she gave away, how much she gaveaway of all she had, and what pretty ways she had of givingit! Her face beamed and rippled with mirth as before, andher laugh that I had tried so hard to force came running homeagain. I have heard no such laugh as hers save from merrychildren; the laughter of most of us ages, and wears out with thebody, but hers remained gleeful to the last, as if it were bornafresh every morning. There was always something of thechild in her, and her laugh was its voice, as eloquent of thepast to me as was the christening robe to her. But I hadnot made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in thosenine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther fromher. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and evenwhile she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had comeback to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly thatshe started up bewildered and looked about her, and then saidslowly, ‘My David’s dead!’ or perhaps heremained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, andthen she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a manand he was still a boy of thirteen, I wrote a little paper called‘Dead this Twenty Years,’ which was about a similartragedy in another woman’s life, and it is the only thing Ihave written that she never spoke about, not even to thatdaughter she loved the best. No one ever spoke of it toher, or asked her if she had read it: one does not ask a motherif she knows that there is a little coffin in the house. She read many times the book in which it is printed, but when shecame to that chapter she would put her hands to her heart or evenover her ears.
What she had been, what I should be, these were the two greatsubjects between us in my boyhood, and while we discussed the onewe were deciding the other, though neither of us knew it.
Before I reached my tenth year a giant entered my native placein the night, and we woke to find him in possession. Hetransformed it into a new town at a rate with which we boys onlycould keep up, for as fast as he built dams we made rafts to sailin them; he knocked down houses, and there we were crying‘Pilly!’ among the ruins; he dug trenches, and wejumped them; we had to be dragged by the legs from beneath hisengines, he sunk wells, and in we went. But though therewere never circumstances to which boys could not adapt themselvesin half an hour, older folk are slower in the uptake, and I amsure they stood and gaped at the changes so suddenly being workedin our midst, and scarce knew their way home now in thedark. Where had been formerly but the click of the shuttlewas soon the roar of ‘power,’ handlooms were pushedinto a corner as a room is cleared for a dance; every morning athalf-past five the town was wakened with a yell, and from achimney-stack that rose high into our caller air the conquerorwaved for evermore his flag of smoke. Another era haddawned, new customs, new fashions sprang into life, all as lustyas if they had been born at twenty-one; as quickly as two peoplemay exchange seats, the daughter, till now but a knitter ofstockings, became the breadwinner, he who had been thebreadwinner sat down to the knitting of stockings: what had beenyesterday a nest of weavers was today a town of girls.
I am not of those who would fling stones at the change; it issomething, surely, that backs are no longer prematurely bent; youmay no more look through dim panes of glass at the aged poorweaving tremulously for their little bit of ground in thecemetery. Rather are their working years too few now, notbecause they will it so but because it is with youth that thepower-looms must be fed. Well, this teaches them to makeprovision, and they have the means as they never hadbefore. Not in batches are boys now sent to college; thehalf-dozen a year have dwindled to one, doubtless because inthese days they can begin to draw wages as they step out of theirfourteenth year. Here assuredly there is loss, but all thelosses would be but a pebble in a sea of gain were it not forthis, that with so many of the family, young mothers among them,working in the factories, home life is not so beautiful as itwas. So much of what is great in Scotland has sprung fromthe closeness of the family ties; it is there I sometimes fearthat my country is being struck. That we are all beingreduced to one dead level, that character abounds no more andlife itself is less interesting, such things I have read, but Ido not believe them. I have even seen them given as myreason for writing of a past time, and in that at least there isno truth. In our little town, which is a sample of many,life is as interesting, as pathetic, as joyous as ever it was; nogroup of weavers was better to look at or think about than therivulet of winsome girls that overruns our streets every time thesluice is raised, the comedy of summer evenings and winterfiresides is played with the old zest and every window-blind isthe curtain of a romance. Once the lights of a little townare lit, who could ever hope to tell all its story, or the storyof a single wynd in it? And who looking at lighted windowsneeds to turn to books? The reason my books deal with thepast 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 littlegirl, of whom my mother has told me, wandering confidentlythrough the pages. Such a grip has her memory of hergirlhood had upon me since I was a boy of six.
Those innumerable talks with her made her youth as vivid to meas my own, and so much more quaint, for, to a child, the oddestof things, and the most richly coloured picture-book, is that hismother was once a child also, and the contrast between what sheis and what she was is perhaps the source of all humour. Mymother’s father, the one hero of her life, died nine yearsbefore I was born, and I remember this with bewilderment, sofamiliarly does the weather-beaten mason’s figure risebefore me from the old chair on which I was nursed and now writemy books. On the surface he is as hard as the stone onwhich he chiselled, and his face is dyed red by its dust, he isrounded in the shoulders and a ‘hoast’ hunts himever; sooner or later that cough must carry him off, but untilthen it shall not keep him from the quarry, nor shall his chappedhands, as long as they can grasp the mell. It is a night ofrain or snow, and my mother, the little girl in a pinafore who isalready his housekeeper, has been many times to the door to lookfor him. At last he draws nigh, hoasting. Or I seehim setting off to church, for he was a great ‘stoop’of the Auld Licht kirk, and his mouth is very firm now as ifthere were a case of discipline to face, but on his way home heis bowed with pity. Perhaps his little daughter who saw himso stern an hour ago does not understand why he wrestles so longin prayer tonight, or why when he rises from his knees hepresses her to him with unwonted tenderness. Or he is inthis chair repeating to her his favourite poem, ‘TheCameronian’s Dream,’ and at the first lines sosolemnly uttered,