When it was known that I had
begun another story my mother
might ask what it was to be about
'Fine we can guess who it is
about,' my sister would say pointedly.
'Maybe you can guess, but it
is beyond me,' says my mother,
with the meekness of one who
knows that she is a dull person.
My sister scorned her at such
times. 'What woman is in all
his books?' she would demand.
'I'm sure I canna say,' replies
my mother determinedly. 'I thought
the women were different every
'Mother, I wonder you can be
so audacious! Fine you know what
woman I mean.'
'How can I know? What woman
is it? You should bear in mind
that I hinna your cleverness'
(they were constantly giving
each other little knocks).
'I won't give you the satisfaction
of saying her name. But this
I will say, it is high time he
was keeping her out of his books.'
And then as usual my mother
would give herself away unconsciously.
'That is what I tell him,' she
says chuckling, 'and he tries
to keep me out, but he canna;
it's more than he can do!'
On an evening after my mother
had gone to bed, the first chapter
would be brought upstairs, and
I read, sitting at the foot of
the bed, while my sister watched
to make my mother behave herself,
and my father cried H'sh! when
there were interruptions. All
would go well at the start, the
reflections were accepted with
a little nod of the head, the
descriptions of scenery as ruts
on the road that must be got
over at a walking pace (my mother
did not care for scenery, and
that is why there is so little
of it in my books). But now I
am reading too quickly, a little
apprehensively, because I know
that the next paragraph begins
with - let us say with, 'Along
this path came a woman': I had
intended to rush on here in a
loud bullying voice, but 'Along
this path came a woman' I read,
and stop. Did I hear a faint
sound from the other end of the
bed? Perhaps I did not; I may
only have been listening for
it, but I falter and look up.
My sister and I look sternly
at my mother. She bites her under-lip
and clutches the bed with both
hands, really she is doing her
best for me, but first comes
a smothered gurgling sound, then
her hold on herself relaxes and
she shakes with mirth.
'That's a way to behave!' cries
'I cannot help it,' my mother
'And there's nothing to laugh
'It's that woman,' my mother
'Maybe she's not the woman
you think her,' I say, crushed.
'Maybe not,' says my mother
doubtfully. 'What was her name?'
'Her name,' I answer with triumph,
'was not Margaret'; but this
makes her ripple again. 'I have
so many names nowadays,' she
'H'sh!' says my father, and
the reading is resumed.
Perhaps the woman who came
along the path was of tall and
majestic figure, which should
have shown my mother that I had
contrived to start my train without
her this time. But it did not.
'What are you laughing at now?'
says my sister severely. 'Do
you not hear that she was a tall,
'It's the first time I ever
heard it said of her,' replies
'But she is.'
'Ke fy, havers!'
'The book says it.'
'There will be a many queer
things in the book. What was
I have not described her clothes.
'That's a mistake,' says my mother.
'When I come upon a woman in
a book, the first thing I want
to know about her is whether
she was good-looking, and the
second, how she was put on.'
The woman on the path was eighteen
years of age, and of remarkable
'That settles you,' says my
'I was no beauty at eighteen,'
my mother admits, but here my
father interferes unexpectedly.
'There wasna your like in this
countryside at eighteen,' says
'Pooh!' says she, well pleased.
'Were you plain, then?' we
'Sal,' she replies briskly,
'I was far from plain.'
Perhaps in the next chapter
this lady (or another) appears
in a carriage.
'I assure you we're mounting
in the world,' I hear my mother
murmur, but I hurry on without
looking up. The lady lives in
a house where there are footmen
- but the footmen have come on
the scene too hurriedly. 'This
is more than I can stand,' gasps
my mother, and just as she is
getting the better of a fit of
laughter, 'Footman, give me a
drink of water,' she cries, and
this sets her off again. Often
the readings had to end abruptly
because her mirth brought on
violent fits of coughing.
Sometimes I read to my sister
alone, and she assured me that
she could not see my mother among
the women this time. This she
said to humour me. Presently
she would slip upstairs to announce
triumphantly, 'You are in again!'
Or in the small hours I might
make a confidant of my father,
and when I had finished reading
he would say thoughtfully, 'That
lassie is very natural. Some
of the ways you say she had -
your mother had them just the
same. Did you ever notice what
an extraordinary woman your mother
Then would I seek my mother
for comfort. She was the more
ready to give it because of her
profound conviction that if I
was found out - that is, if readers
discovered how frequently and
in how many guises she appeared
in my books - the affair would
become a public scandal.
'You see Jess is not really
you,' I begin inquiringly.
'Oh no, she is another kind
of woman altogether,' my mother
says, and then spoils the compliment
by adding naively, 'She had but
two rooms and I have six.'
I sigh. 'Without counting the
pantry, and it's a great big
pantry,' she mutters.
This was not the sort of difference
I could greatly plume myself
upon, and honesty would force
me to say, 'As far as that goes,
there was a time when you had
but two rooms yourself - '
'That's long since,' she breaks
in. 'I began with an up-the-stair,
but I always had it in my mind
- I never mentioned it, but there
it was - to have the down-the-stair
as well. Ay, and I've had it
this many a year.'
'Still, there is no denying
that Jess had the same ambition.'
'She had, but to her two-roomed
house she had to stick all her
born days. Was that like me?'
'No, but she wanted - '
'She wanted, and I wanted,
but I got and she didna. That's
the difference betwixt her and
'If that is all the difference,
it is little credit I can claim
for having created her.'
My mother sees that I need
soothing. 'That is far from being
all the difference,' she would
say eagerly. 'There's my silk,
for instance. Though I say it
mysel, there's not a better silk
in the valley of Strathmore.
Had Jess a silk of any kind -
not to speak of a silk like that?'
'Well, she had no silk, but
you remember how she got that
cloak with beads.'
'An eleven and a bit! Hoots,
what was that to boast of! I
tell you, every single yard of
my silk cost - '
'Mother, that is the very way
Jess spoke about her cloak!'
She lets this pass, perhaps
without hearing it, for solicitude
about her silk has hurried her
to the wardrobe where it hangs.
'Ah, mother, I am afraid that
was very like Jess!'
it be like her when she didna
even have a wardrobe?
I tell you what, if there had
been a real Jess and she had
boasted to me about her cloak
with beads, I would have said
to her in a careless sort of
voice, "Step across with me,
Jess and I'll let you see something
that is hanging in my wardrobe." That
would have lowered her pride!'
'I don't believe that is what
you would have done, mother.'
Then a sweeter expression would
come into her face. 'No,' she
would say reflectively, 'it's
'What would you have done?
I think I know.'
'You canna know. But I'm thinking
I would have called to mind that
she was a poor woman, and ailing,
and terrible windy about her
cloak, and I would just have
said it was a beauty and that
I wished I had one like it.'
'Yes, I am certain that is
what you would have done. But
oh, mother, that is just how
Jess would have acted if some
poorer woman than she had shown
her a new shawl.'
'Maybe, but though I hadna
boasted about my silk I would
have wanted to do it.'
'Just as Jess would have been
fidgeting to show off her eleven
and a bit!'
It seems advisable to jump
to another book; not to my first,
because - well, as it was my
first there would naturally be
something of my mother in it,
and not to the second, as it
was my first novel and not much
esteemed even in our family.
(But the little touches of my
mother in it are not so bad.)
Let us try the story about the
My mother's first remark is
decidedly damping. 'Many a time
in my young days,' she says,
'I played about the Auld Licht
manse, but I little thought I
should live to be the mistress
'But Margaret is not you.'
'N-no, oh no. She had a very
different life from mine. I never
let on to a soul that she is
'She was not meant to be you
when I began. Mother, what a
way you have of coming creeping
'You should keep better watch
'Perhaps if I had called Margaret
by some other name - '
'I should have seen through
her just the same. As soon as
I heard she was the mother I
began to laugh. In some ways,
though, she's no' so very like
me. She was long in finding out
about Babbie. I'se uphaud I should
have been quicker.'
'Babbie, you see, kept close
to the garden-wall.'
'It's not the wall up at the
manse that would have hidden
her from me.'
'She came out in the dark.'
'I'm thinking she would have
found me looking for her with
'And Gavin was secretive.'
'That would have put me on
'She never suspected anything.'
'I wonder at her.'
But my new heroine is to be
a child. What has madam to say
A child! Yes, she has something
to say even to that. 'This beats
all!' are the words.
'Come, come, mother, I see
what you are thinking, but I
assure you that this time - '
'Of course not,' she says soothingly,
'oh no, she canna be me'; but
anon her real thoughts are revealed
by the artless remark, 'I doubt,
though, this is a tough job you
have on hand - it is so long
since I was a bairn.'
We came very close to each
other in those talks. 'It is
a queer thing,' she would say
softly, 'that near everything
you write is about this bit place.
You little expected that when
you began. I mind well the time
when it never entered your head,
any more than mine, that you
could write a page about our
squares and wynds. I wonder how
it has come about?'
There was a time when I could
not have answered that question,
but that time had long passed.
'I suppose, mother, it was because
you were most at home in your
own town, and there was never
much pleasure to me in writing
of people who could not have
known you, nor of squares and
wynds you never passed through,
nor of a country-side where you
never carried your father's dinner
in a flagon. There is scarce
a house in all my books where
I have not seemed to see you
a thousand times, bending over
the fireplace or winding up the
'And yet you used to be in
such a quandary because you knew
nobody you could make your women-folk
out of! Do you mind that, and
how we both laughed at the notion
of your having to make them out
'And now you've gone back to
my father's time. It's more than
sixty years since I carried his
dinner in a flagon through the
long parks of Kinnordy.'
'I often go into the long parks,
mother, and sit on the stile
at the edge of the wood till
I fancy I see a little girl coming
toward me with a flagon in her
'Jumping the burn (I was once
so proud of my jumps!) and swinging
the flagon round so quick that
what was inside hadna time to
fall out. I used to wear a magenta
frock and a white pinafore. Did
I ever tell you that?'
'Mother, the little girl in
my story wears a magenta frock
and a white pinafore.'
'You minded that! But I'm thinking
it wasna a lassie in a pinafore
you saw in the long parks of
Kinnordy, it was just a gey done
'It was a lassie in a pinafore,
mother, when she was far away,
but when she came near it was
a gey done auld woman.'
'And a fell ugly one!'
'The most beautiful one I shall
'I wonder to hear you say it.
Look at my wrinkled auld face.'
'It is the sweetest face in
all the world.'
'See how the rings drop off
my poor wasted finger.'
'There will always be someone
nigh, mother, to put them on
'Ay, will there!
Well I know it. Do you mind
how when you
were but a bairn you used to
say, "Wait till I'm a man, and
you'll never have a reason for
'You used to
come running into the house
to say, "There's a
proud dame going down the Marywellbrae
in a cloak that is black on one
side and white on the other;
wait till I'm a man, and you'll
have one the very same." And
when I lay on gey hard beds you
said, "When I'm a man you'll
lie on feathers." You saw nothing
bonny, you never heard of my
setting my heart on anything,
but what you flung up your head
and cried, "Wait till I'm a man." You
fair shamed me before the neighbours,
and yet I was windy, too. And
now it has all come true like
a dream. I can call to mind not
one little thing I ettled for
in my lusty days that hasna been
put into my hands in my auld
age; I sit here useless, surrounded
by the gratification of all my
wishes and all my ambitions,
and at times I'm near terrified,
for it's as if God had mista'en
me for some other woman.'
'Your hopes and ambitions were
so simple,' I would say, but
she did not like that. 'They
werena that simple,' she would
I am reluctant to leave those
happy days, but the end must
be faced, and as I write I seem
to see my mother growing smaller
and her face more wistful, and
still she lingers with us, as
if God had said, 'Child of mine,
your time has come, be not afraid.'
And she was not afraid, but still
she lingered, and He waited,
smiling. I never read any of
that last book to her; when it
was finished she was too heavy
with years to follow a story.
To me this was as if my book
must go out cold into the world
(like all that may come after
it from me), and my sister, who
took more thought for others
and less for herself than any
other human being I have known,
saw this, and by some means unfathomable
to a man coaxed my mother into
being once again the woman she
had been. On a day but three
weeks before she died my father
and I were called softly upstairs.
My mother was sitting bolt upright,
as she loved to sit, in her old
chair by the window, with a manuscript
in her hands. But she was looking
about her without much understanding.
'Just to please him,' my sister
whispered, and then in a low,
trembling voice my mother began
to read. I looked at my sister.
Tears of woe were stealing down
her face. Soon the reading became
very slow and stopped. After
a pause, 'There was something
you were to say to him,' my sister
reminded her. 'Luck,' muttered
a voice as from the dead, 'luck.'
And then the old smile came running
to her face like a lamp-lighter,
and she said to me, 'I am ower
far gone to read, but I'm thinking
I am in it again!' My father
put her Testament in her hands,
and it fell open - as it always
does - at the Fourteenth of John.
She made an effort to read but
could not. Suddenly she stooped
and kissed the broad page. 'Will
that do instead?' she asked.