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MAY EVE

I was told that some one wanted to see me.
“Who is it?” I asked.
They told me it was an old lady, who would give no name. I inquired of her appearance. “She is an old lady,” they replied, “and very, very small.” I think I must have guessed, for I asked no further questions. I told them to show her in.
If I could only describe to you the way she came into the room! She was so wee and so tiny. Her eyes sparkled with such brilliancy, she might have been seven instead of seventy. Then, when she bobbed me a curtsey as she entered, I could have believed she was a fairy come from the uttermost ends of the earth to attend a christening.
There was every good reason for my belief, not the least of which was that it was May Eve. In Ireland, as you know, the folk dare not go out after dark on this eventful day. The fairies are in the fields, fairies good and bad, and heaven only knows what you may not come across if you wander through the boreens or across the hillside when once the evening has put on her mantle of grey.
Not only will you meet them in the fields, moreover; they come to your very door and milk they ask of you, and fire and water. Now, except that she asked for nothing, but rather brought a gift to me, my wee visitor might have been a fairy come out of the land beyond the edge of Time; come ten million miles to this old farmhouse which hugs itself so close to the land in the valley between the hills.
For the moment I felt my heart in my throat. I had added things together so quickly in my mind that I was sure my belief was right. She was a fairy. May Eve—the very time of day, when the grey mist is creeping over the meadows, and the river runs blip, blip between the reeds—the strange and youthful glitter in her wee brown eyes, set deep in the hollows of that old and wrinkled face; then last of all, her bobbing curtsey and the way she smiled at me as though she had a blessing in her pocket—these were the things I added so swiftly together in my mind. The result was inevitable. Undoubtedly she was a fairy. Now see how strange the tricks life plays with you; for, whereas I had believed in fairies before, I knew now that my belief had been vain. I had only believed in the idea of them—that was all. I had only said I believed because I knew I should never see one to contradict the doubt which still lingered in my heart. That is the way most of us say our credo.
“I’ve brought you your travelling-rug,” said she, and she bobbed again.
“What travelling-rug?” I asked.
And then, what happened, do you think? I could hardly believe my eyes. She took from off her arm what seemed at first to me some garment, lined richly with orange-coloured sateen. My eyes grew wider in wonder as she laid it down and spread it out upon the floor.
It was a patchwork quilt!
Oh, you never did see such a galaxy of colours in all your life! Blues and reds, greens, yellows and purples, they all jostled each other for a place upon that square of orange-coloured sateen. All textures they were, too; some velvet, some silk, and some brocade. It was as if the caves of Aladdin had been thrown open to me, and I were allowed just for one moment to peep within.
But that was not all.
For when I said: “You’ve finished it, then?” I saw to what purpose that completion had been made. Right in the centre of all those dazzling patches was a square of purple—purple that the Emperors used to wear—while worked across in regal letters of gold there were my own initials.
I stared at them. I went down on my knees, looking close into the stitches to make sure that there was no mistake. Then I gazed up at her.
“But it’s for me?” said I.
She nodded her head and her whole face was lighted up with pride and satisfaction. She was so excited, too. Her eyes danced with excitement. You know the quaint little twisted attitudes that children get into when they are giving you a present which they have made themselves; they are half consumed with fear that you are going to laugh at them and half consumed with pride in their own handiwork. She was just like that.
Lest you do not know already, I should tell you that I had made her my pensioner as long as she lives, in order to enable her to leave off work and make this patchwork quilt whereby she might be remembered by those who slept beneath it when she had gone to sleep. But I had thought to myself, surely it will be in the family. I had wondered who would become the proud possessor of it. Imagine my amazement, then, when I realised that it was my very own.
“And you’ll think of me when I’m gone, won’t you, sir—when you go to bed at night?” she said.
“Think of you?” said I. “You may well call it a travelling-rug. I only have to wrap this round me and, with the mere wish of it, I shall be in the land of dreams—millions and millions of miles away.”
“P’raps I shall be there, too,” said she, clasping her hands.
“And then we’ll meet,” said I.
She began folding it up with just that care which she had used in the making of it. She folded it one way.
“It’s nice and warm,” said she.
She doubled it another way.
“Every one of the squares is lined with sateen.”
She redoubled it once more.
“And it’s all padded with cotton wool.”
When she said that, she stood up with her face all beaming with smiles, and she laid it in my hands.
Then I did what I had wanted to do from the very first moment I saw her. I took her little face in my hands and I kissed the soft, warm, wrinkled cheeks.
“When I was very unhappy,” said I, “I used to entertain what is called a belief in fairies. Now that I know what it is to be happy, I find them. It’s a very different thing.”

XI
THE FLOWER BEAUTIFUL


XI
THE FLOWER BEAUTIFUL
Limehouse, Plaistow, and the East India Docks—these are places in the world to wonder about. Yet even there beauty manages to creep in and grow in a soil where there would seem to be nothing but decay.
There are societies, I believe, which exist in those quarters, whose endeavour it is to lift the mind of the East End inhabitant to an appreciation of what the West End knows to be Art. I am sure that all their intentions are the sincerest in the world. But what is the good of Art to a dock labourer and his wife?
We have only arrived at Art ourselves after generations and generations of a knowledge of what is beautiful. So absolutely have we arrived, moreover, that we care no longer for what is beautiful; we only care for Art.
That, however, is another question too long to enter into here. But to teach Art to the East India dock labourer when he knows so little of beauty, that is a process of putting carts before horses—a reduction to absurdity which can be seen at once.
Now when I was a journalist—that is to say, when I wrote lines of words for a paper which paid me so much per line for the number of lines which the chief sub-editor was good enough to use—I was one day despatched to the East End to see if there were any stuff—I speak colloquially—in a poor people’s flower show.
“It may be funny,” said the editor.
“It might be,” said I.
“Well, make it funny,” said he, for I think he caught the note in my voice.
I pocketed my notebook and set off for the East End. Oh, there were all sorts of flowers and doubtless it looked the funniest of flower shows you would ever have seen. For example, the qualification necessary for exhibition was that your plant had been grown in a pot and on a window sill. It was a qualification not difficult to fulfil. In all my wanderings there to find the place, no plot of ground did I see, save a graveyard around a church. But the only things that grew there were the stones in memory of the dead; and they, begrimed with soot and dirt, were sorry flowers to grace a tomb.
You can imagine the pitiful, shrivelled little things that had struggled to maintain life on the window sills of the houses in those dingy courts and darksome alleys. Never did I see such an array in all my life. They would almost, when you thought of country gardens where the daffodils stand up and brave the April winds, they would almost have brought the tears to your eyes.
Little geraniums there were, blinking their poor, tired eyes at the light. One woman brought a plant of sweet pea, which was climbing so wearily, yet so anxiously out of its little pot of red up a wee thin stake of wood. You knew it would never reach the light of the heaven it so yearned to see. The two faint blossoms that it bore were pale, like fragile slum children. What would I not have given then to wrench it out of its poor bed and give it to the great generous sweep of an open field, with a hedge of hawthorn perhaps on which to lean its tired arms.
The woman saw my eyes in its direction and she beamed with conscious pride.
“It doesn’t look very healthy,” said I.
She gazed at it and then at me with open wonder in her eyes.
“Not ’ealthy?” she said—“why, I’ve never seen none looking better. Look at that pansy over there—it can’t ’old its ’ead up.”
“But why compare it with the worst one in the show?” I asked—“I didn’t mean it as a personal criticism when I said it wasn’t healthy. I’m sure you’ve taken a tremendous amount of care over it.”
“Care!” she exclaimed—“I should just think I ’ave. It’s ’ad all the scrapin’s off the road in front of our ’ouse.”
I passed on, for the judges were coming round and the young curate just down from the university has not a proper respect for the Press. He has probably written for it. Now the young curate of the parish was the principal judge.
I did not hear what he said about the sweet pea. I had gone further on to where a woman was standing with her hand affectionately round a pot from which rose a fine, healthy plant, with rich, deep purple flowers nestling in the leaves that grew to the very pinnacle of the stem. There I waited. I wanted to hear what the judges were going to say about this one. I wanted to hear very much indeed.
This woman, too, seeing my interest in her exhibit, smiled with generous satisfaction.
“Think I’ve got a chanst, sir?”
“I don’t know,” said I—“it’s fine and strong.”
“And look at all the blossoms,” said she with enthusiasm—“you wouldn’t believe it, but my son brought that from the country last year when ’e went for the houtin’. ’E brought it back, dragged up almost to the roots it was—an’ it was in flower then. ‘Put it in a vawse,’ I says, but my ole man, ’e says—‘Shove it in a bloomin’ pot,’ ’e says, ‘that’ll grow,’ ’e says—‘it’s got roots to it.’ So we puts it in a pot and sticks it out on a window sill, and there it is. It died down to nothin’ last winter, but my ole man, ’e wouldn’t let me throw the pot away. ‘Give it a chanst of the spring,’ ’e says—‘give it a chanst of the spring.’ And bless my soul, if we didn’t see little bits of green sticking up through the mould before the beginning of last March.”
“It’s been a constant interest since then?” said I.
“Hinterest! Why my ole man said as I was killin’ it, the way I watered it and looked after it.”
“And what do you call it?” I asked.
“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Nobody seems to know. We call it—William.”
I laughed. “There is a flower called Sweet William,” said I.
“Perhaps that’s it,” she answered, thoughtfully. “But it don’t smell—leastways, I’ve never smelt nothin’ from it.”
I stood aside as the judges came up. When he saw the plant, standing so bravely and so healthily, and so beautifully in its bright red pot, the curate laughed out loud.
“Look here,” said he to one of the other judges, who came up and laughed as well.
“Do you know what you’ve got here, my good woman?” asked the curate.
She shook her head.
“Well, we can’t give you anything for this—it’s only a common nettle—a red dead nettle.”
“But it’s a beautiful colour—ain’t it?” said she, with a flame of red in her face.
“Oh—it’s a beautiful colour, no doubt,” replied the curate easily—“so, I hope, is every plant that grows in the highways and the byways.”
“Well, then, why shouldn’t it get a prize?” she demanded.
“Because it’s only a common dead nettle,” said the curate, very softly, turning away wrath.
“But it’s ’ealthier and stronger and finer than any o’ them other flowers,” said she.
“Quite so—no doubt—you might expect that. These others are cultivated flowers, you see. This is only a common dead nettle.”
I saw the editor when I returned.
“No stuff worth having,” said I—disconsolately, for I was thinking of my few short lines.
“Nothing funny at all?” he asked.
“Nothing,” said I, and I told him about the red dead nettle.
“But I think that’s dammed funny,” he said.
“Do you?” I said.

XII
THE FEMININE APPRECIATION OF MATHEMATICS


XII
THE FEMININE APPRECIATION OF MATHEMATICS
If I could approach mathematics with the same spirit as do ninety-eight women out of a hundred, I might be rather good at them. As it is, my power of will in face of algebraical figures, in face even of numbers that exceed the functions of the simplest forms of arithmetic, my power of will stands aghast. I can do nothing.
Now, ninety-eight women out of a hundred are far more ignorant of the mere rudiments of mathematics than am I; yet with an instinct which I would give my soul to possess they can solve problems and carry on the ordinary business of life with an ability that is little short of marvellous.
Truly, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and most especially when that learning is of mathematics. If once you have tried to weigh hydrogen on an agate-balanced scale, you are for ever unfitted for the common-or-garden mathematical exigencies of life. Now this is where a woman has all the pull. The most that she has ever had to calculate the weight of is a pound of flour or seven and a half pounds of sirloin already weighed and attested by the butcher. When, then, it comes to weighing the baby on the scale-pans in the kitchen, she will fling on the weights with such a degree of confidence that the result is bound to be correct. You and I, on the other hand, would approach the matter with such delicacy of touch—believing, and quite rightly, that a baby was of far more importance than all the immeasurable quantities of hydrogen in the world—with such delicacy and care should we approach it that the poor infant would have caught its death of cold and be in a comatose condition of exhaustion before we had decided that the scale-pan was clean or the weights were in proper condition to be used.
This smattering of general education is a fatal business. It unfits men for all the real and useful demands of life.
Only the other day, my friend Cruikshank broke a brass candlestick and looked up helplessly from the wreck.
“Where on earth can I get any solder from?” said he.
“What’s solder?” asked Bellwattle, his wife.
The question was so direct that, for the moment, it confused him.
“Solder?” he repeated. “Solder? Oh, it’s stuff to mend metal with.”
“I’ll do it with sealing-wax,” said Bellwattle.
Cruikshank laughed and, as he said to me afterwards—
“I gave it to her to do. It’s best to let women learn by experience. Sealing-wax!” And he laughed knowingly at me. I knew he meant it kindly, so I laughed with him; but the next day I made inquiries about the candlestick.
“How did she get on?” I asked.
“By Jove, she’s done it,” said he. “It won’t bear much knocking about, of course, but it stands as firm as a rock. It’s only a woman,” he added, “who’d think of mending a brass candlestick with sealing-wax.”
“It’s only a woman who’d succeed,” said I.
But this has nothing to do with mathematics, and it is of mathematics that I want to speak.
If you have any interest in photography, you know how tricksy a matter is the exposure of a plate. It is tricksy to you and I will tell you why. It is because your academic study of the process has taught you that the two-thousandth part of a second is sufficient exposure in order to get cloud effects. Conceive, then, how your brain whirls with figures when you come to take a photograph of an interior or a portrait of some one sitting in a room. I will not remind you of the tortures which your mind must suffer, nor the result of such torture when at last you develop the plate in the dark-room—both are too painful to speak about. Now, a woman knows nothing about this two-thousandth part of a second. She would not believe there were such a measurable fraction of time if you told her. She just exposes the plate; that is all.
One day I had to get a photograph taken in a hurry. I marched into a photographer’s in the Strand. There was first a narrow passage, hung with frames filled with photos of young men and young women looking their worst in their best. Then I was confronted by a flight of stairs which I mounted, to find myself in a great big room hung also with photographs—photographs of family groups, of babies in their characteristic attitudes as their mothers had given them to the world. Every conceivable sort of photograph was there, but the room, except for an American roll-topped desk near the window, was empty.
I coughed, and the head of a young girl—not more than twenty years of age—popped up above the desk.
“Can Mr. Robinson take my photograph this morning?” I asked.
“Mr. Robinson is not in at present,” she replied.
“I rather wanted my photograph taken in a hurry,” said I.
“Oh, you can have it taken,” said she. “Would you like it done at once?”
“At once, if you please,” I answered.
She rose from her seat behind the roll-topped desk and she walked to the door.
“Then will you step into the waiting-room?” she asked.
I obeyed. The waiting-room had a mirror and a pair of brushes. When I thought of the families whose portraits I had seen within—I refrained.
“I shall do,” said I, “as I am.”
After a few moments’ delay there was a knock on the door. I opened it. There again was the little lady waiting for me.
“Will you step up to the studio, please?” she said, and I received the impression from her voice of anxious assistants waiting in rows to receive me, ready to take my features and record them upon a photographic plate for the benefit of posterity.
Up into the studio, then, I went; a gaunt, great place with white-blinded windows that stared up to the dull, grey sky. But it was empty. I looked in vain for the assistants—there were none. And when she began to wheel the camera into place I stood amazed.
“Are you the whole business of Robinson and Co.?” I asked.
She smiled encouragingly.
“Mr. Robinson is out,” said she.
“I don’t believe there is a Mr. Robinson,” I replied.
She laughed gleefully at that and repeated that there was such a person, but he was out.
“And does he leave you to the responsibility of the entire premises?” I asked.
“Yes,” said she.
“What do you do if any one comes into the portrait gallery downstairs while you’re up here?”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she replied confidently; “they don’t often come.”
I let her fix that abominable instrument of torture at the back of my neck. Her fingers tickled me as she did it, but I said nothing. I was trying in my mind to assess the value of this business of Mr. Robinson. It was no easy job. I had not got beyond single figures when she walked back to the camera.
I glanced up at the leaden sky.
“It’s rather dull,” said I; “what exposure are you going to give?”
“Oh, I think once will be enough.”
“Once what?” I asked.
“Just once,” said she.
“But, good heavens!” I exclaimed, and I thought of the two-thousandth part of a second—“it must be one of something. Is it seconds or minutes or half-hours or what?”
She burst out laughing.
“I don’t know what it is,” she replied, as if it were the simplest matter in the world, “only Mr. Robinson says my once is as good as his twice.”
“Is it?” said I. “As good as his twice? What a splendid once it must be!”
Now that is what I mean. That is the feminine appreciation of mathematics. I wish I had it. It may not be of much service on the office stool, but in a world of men and women it is invaluable.

XIII
THE MATERNAL INSTINCT


XIII
THE MATERNAL INSTINCT
Some things there are which you may count upon for ever. The fittest will always survive, despite the million charities to aid the incompetent; the maternal instinct will always be the deepest human incentive, no matter who may gibe at the sentiment which clings about little children.
Now, if it be true that Art is the voice of the Age in which we live; that the painter paints what the eye of the Age has seen, the singer sings the songs which the Age has heard, the man of letters writes the thoughts which have passed through the mind of the Age—if all this is true, then how strange and unreal an Age this must be.
For if for one moment you chose to consider it, there are but few painters, few singers, few writers who express the immutable laws of life. Among writers most of all, perhaps, this is an age which devotes itself to the unfittest. The physically unfit, the morally unfit, the socially unfit—these are the characters which fill the pages of those who write to-day.
The old hero, the man of great strength, of great honour, of great courage, he no longer exists in literature. I am told he is old-fashioned, a copy-book individual, a puppet set in motion with no subtle movements of character, but with wires too plainly seen, worked by a hand too obviously visible. There is no Art in him, I am told. I am glad there is not. He would lose all the qualities of heroship for me if there were.
In times gone by, though, this old-fashioned hero was just as real a man as is the hero of to-day. In times gone by this hero was not unnatural, not wanting in character or humanity when he slept with the maid of his choice, a naked sword between them guarding the pricelessness of her virginity. But now—to-day—how wanting in character do you imagine would he be thought for such a deed as that? How painfully unreal?
Is this the fault of the Age? Or is it the fault of the writer? Is it that the Age cannot produce a real hero? Or is it that he is there in numbers in the midst of us and the man of letters has not the clearness of vision to see him? For it is not the fittest, but the unfittest who survives in the pages of literature now.
And thus it is also when you find treatment in fiction of that immutable law, the maternal instinct. If in the novel of to-day you meet the character of a woman with a child, you may be fairly confident that it will be shown to you sooner or later in the ensuing pages how easily she will desert it for the love of some man other than her husband, or how, loving that man, her soul will be wracked ere she bids it farewell. But, tortured or not, she will go. No matter how skilfully she is shown to repent of it later, still she will go.
Now, is that the fault of the Age, or is it the fault of the writer? In danger or in love, do women desert their children? It may happen that they do, but that is a very different matter. All that glitters is not gold—all that happens is not real. Yet it seems to be the choice of the modern writer to seize upon these isolated happenings, give them a coating of reality, and offer them to the public as life.
But life is not a narrow business where things just happen and that is all. Life is the length and breadth of this great universe where things are, in relation to the whole system of suns and moons and stars. Now the maternal instinct is a law without which this wonderfully regulated system would shatter and crumble into a thousand little pieces.
But no one extols it in this age of ours. Talk of it and you are dubbed a sentimentalist at once. Write of it and the cheap irony of critics is heaped upon you. Yet there seems no greater and no grander struggle to me than when these inevitable laws march through the invading army of vermin and of parasites to their inevitable end of victory.
The other day I witnessed a most thrilling spectacle: a mother defending her child from death—a duel where the odds against victory were legion.
In the hedge that shields my garden from the road there is a thrush’s nest. I saw her build it. She was very doubtful about me at first; played all sorts of tricks to deceive me; decoyed my attention away while her mate was a-building; sent him to distract my mind while she was putting those finishing touches to the house of which only a woman knows the secret—and knows it so well.
I think before it was completed she had lost much of her distrust in me, for I did nothing to disturb her. It was not in my mind to see what she would do if things happened. I just wanted everything to be—that was all. And so, after a time, she would hop about the lawn where I was sitting, taking me silently thereby into her confidence, making me feel that I was not such an outcast of Nature as she had supposed me to be at first.
I tried to live up to that as well as I could. Whenever I passed the nest and saw her uplifted beak, her two watchful eyes gazing alert over the rim of it, I assumed ignorance at the expense of her thinking what an unobservant fool I must be. But there were always moments when she was away from home and I, stealing to the nest, found opportunity for discovering how things were going on. Five fine blue eggs were laid at last. I think she must have guessed that I counted them, for one morning she caught me with my hand in the nest. I slunk away feeling a sorry sort of fool for my clumsy interference. She flew at once to see what I had done. I guess the terror that must have filled her heart. But when she had counted them herself and found her house in order, she came out on to the lawn and looked at me as though I were one of those strange enigmas which life sometimes offers to every one of us.
At length one day, when I called and gently put in my hand—leaving my card, as you might say—the eggs were there no longer. In place of them was a soft, warm mass like a heap of swan’s-down, palpitating with life.
I met her later on the lawn, when she perked her head up at me and as good as said:
“I suppose you know I’ve got other things to do now, besides looking beautiful.”
But I thought she looked splendid. What is more, I told her so, and it seemed just for the moment as if she understood, as if there came back into her eyes that look of grateful vanity which she wore last spring when her mate was wooing her with his songs from the elm tree across the way. But the next moment she had put all flattery behind her and was haggling with a worm, not as to price no doubt, but haggling nevertheless for possession.
Well, the household went on splendidly, until one day I saw my cat sitting on the path below the nest staring up into the bushes.
“You little devil!” I shouted, and she went galloping down the garden with a stone trundling at her heels.
I kept a closer watch after that and, one morning, hearing a great noise as of the songs of many birds while I was at my breakfast, I just stepped out to see what was happening.
I was held spellbound by what I saw. For there, on the path again below the nest, sat the cat and two yards from her—scarcely more—stood my little mother-thrush, her eyes dilated with terror, her feathers ruffled and swelling on her throat, singing—singing—singing, as though her heart would burst.
It can only last a moment, I thought. One spring and the cat will have her. But, no! Before the greatness of that courage, before the glory of that song, the cat was silenced and made impotent to move. There, within a few feet of her was her prey. With one swift rush, with one fell stroke of her velvet paw, she could have laid it low. But she was up against a law greater than that which nerves the hunter to his cunning.
For five minutes, with throat swelling and eyes like little pins of fire, the mother sang her song of fearless maternity. The glorious notes rang from her in ceaseless trills and tireless cadences. I have heard a singer at Covent Garden, when the whole house rose as one person and applauded her to the very roof, but never have I heard such a song as this, which put to silence the very laws of God that His greatest law might triumph.
For five minutes she sang and then, with crouching steps, the cat turned tail and crawled away into the garden. The thrush ceased her singing and fluttered exhausted up to the nest.
And they write of women deserting their children!

XIV
FROM MY PORTFOLIO


XIV
FROM MY PORTFOLIO
He has just reached his eightieth year. Eighty times—not conscious perhaps of them all—he has seen the wall-flowers blossom in his old garden; well-nigh eighty times has he thinned out his lettuces and his spring onions, pruned his few rose trees, weeded his gravel paths.
Now he is bent with rheumatism; his rounded back and stooping head, his tremulous knees in their old corduroy breeches, are but sorry promises of what he was. Yet with what I have been told and what I can easily imagine, it is plainly that I can see the fine stalwart fellow he has been. Until the age of seventy-two he was the carrier for our village. How many journeys he made, fair weather or foul, always up to the stroke of time, never forgetting the message for this person, the purchase for that, they will all tell you here in the village. I know nothing of his life as a carrier. It is of an old man I give you my picture—an old man awaiting the coming of death with a clear eye and a sturdy heart, enjoying the last moments of life while he may, and facing those sorrows and deprivations which come with old age in a way that many a younger man might learn and profit from.
Only a short time since, his wife departed upon her last journey. The winter came and snatched her from him just as the first frost nips the last of the autumn flowers. Her frail white petals drooped and then they fell. He was left to press them between the leaves of that book of Life which, with trembling fingers, he still clutched within his hand.
He was too ill to follow her body to its quiet little bed in that corner of God’s acre where it was made; but I can feel the loneliness in the heart of him when he turned and turned with wakeful eyes that night, stretching out his knotted fingers to the empty place beside him—the place in that bed which had been hers for so many happy years and was hers no longer.
They thought he would never pull through that winter after his loss; and indeed he must have fought manfully with that undaunted courage of a man who clings to life, no matter what misfortune, because it is his right—his heritage. For imagine the long, sleepless nights which must have followed the departure of his gentle bed-fellow! Think of those weary, endless silences which once had been filled by the whisperings of their voices! For in bed and at night-time, the old people always whisper. It is as though they were deeply conscious of the invisible presence of God and His angels. They talk in hushed voices as though they were in church.
I can hear her saying—
“John.”
“Yes,” I can hear him reply.
“Are you awake?”
“Yes—are you?”
“I am. Isn’t it a windy night?”
“’Tis a fine storm—and I never put in they pea-sticks. I was going to do ’en to-morrow.”
And then I can hear her little whisper of consolation—
“Maybe they’ll be safe till then. They’re sturdy plants.” At which I can see him turning over in his bed and passing into one of those short hours of sleep into which Nature so gently divides the night for the old people.
Then think of the long and weary silences through which he must have endured before he grew accustomed to the absence of his bed-fellow. For there seem to me few things more pathetic yet more beautiful than two old people who have long passed the passions of youth, sharing their bed together, with the simplicity and innocence of little children. I can, too, so readily conceive how dread the terror of the night becomes when one of them is taken and the other left. I can hear the sounds at night that frighten, the storms that rattle the tiles on the old roof making the one who is left behind stretch out his groping hand for the trembling touch of another hand in vain.
Yet through all this he survived. Cruelly though his heart had been dealt with, he still retained the whole spirit of courage in his soul. With all its chill winds and bitter frosts, he braved out that winter and two years have passed now since his wife died.
I see him nearly every day in his garden, walking up and down the paths, picking out a weed here, a weed there. Two walking-sticks he has to help him on his journeys. They are called simply, number one and number two. And when it is a fine morning, with the sun riding fiercely in a cloudless sky, his daughter will say to him—
“You need only take number one to-day.”
So he takes number one and a look comes into those child’s eyes of his as though he would say—
“Ah—you see I’m not done for yet. There’s many an old fellow of eighty can’t get along without two sticks to help him.”
One day, too, this summer, I found him working with a bill-hook in his garden. The grass had grown up high under the quick-set hedge on one of the paths. He was clearing it all away.
“Must keep the little place tidy, sir,” he said, with a bright twinkle in his eye. “They grasses do grow up so quick there’d be no seeing the path at all.” Then with little suppressed grunts of his breath to every swing of the bill-hook, he went on steadily with his work, leaning heavily upon number one with the other hand.
Rather strenuous labour you would think for an old man of eighty to be doing. But as he worked, I saw that all the stems of the grass had been cut for him beforehand with a scythe. He was only sweeping it together into heaps with the aid of a bill-hook. So long as it was a bill-hook it seemed man’s labour to him.
I try sometimes to find out what he thinks about life and its swiftly approaching end. But he is very reticent to speak of it—so unlike our little serving-maid, who takes her evenings out alone, and when I asked her why she did not prefer company, replied—
“I like to think, sir.”
“What of?” said I.
“Of life and the night,” said she.
But if he thinks of life and the night, as indeed I am sure he must, he tells his thoughts to no one. It was only once, when I was praising the scent and the show of his glorious wall-flowers, that he said to me—
“I like to think they’re the best this year that I’ve ever had. I grow them all from our own seed, sir. I save it up myself every year. And I like to think this year that they’re the very best, because you know, sir, I may not see them again.”
I tried to imagine what would be the state of my own mind, if I thought I should never see wall-flowers again. I wondered could I say it with such courage, such resignation as he.
To never see wall-flowers again! It seems in a nonsensical, childish way to me to sum up the whole tragedy—if tragedy there really be—in Death. It seems, moreover, to give just that little stroke of the brush, that little line of the pen in completion of this thumb-nail portrait of mine. An old man in an old garden that he loves, telling himself that his wall-flowers are the best that year of all—telling himself bravely night after night when he goes to bed, morning after morning when he rises to the new day—which is one more day nearer the end—telling himself that they are the best this year of all, because he may not see them any more.
To never see wall-flowers again!

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