English Literature

The Mother by Norman Duncan

The Mother by Norman Duncan


It will be recalled without effort—possibly, indeed, without interest—that the obsequies of the old Senator Boligand were a distinguished success: a fashionable, proper function, ordered by the young widow with exquisite taste, as all the world said, and conducted without reproach, as the undertaker and the clergy very heartily agreed. At the Church of the Lifted Cross, the incident of the child, the blonde lady and the mysteriously veiled man, who sat in awe and bewildered amazement where the shadows gave deepest seclusion, escaped notice. Not that the late Senator Boligand was in life aware of the existence of the child or the lady or the strange fellow with the veil. Nothing of the sort. The one was the widow of Dick Slade, the other his son, born in wedlock; and the third was the familiar counsellor and intimate of them all. The Senator was for once turned to good account: was made contributor to the sweetness of life, to the comfort of the humble. That was all. And I fancy that the shade of the grim old robber, lurking somewhere in the softly coloured gloom of the chancel, was not altogether averse to the farce in which his earthly tabernacle was engaged….

When Dick Slade died in the big red tenement of Box Street, he died as other men die, complaining of the necessity; and his son, in the way of all tender children, sorely wept: not because his father was now lost to him, which was beyond his comprehension, but because the man must be put in a grave—a cold place, dark and suffocating, being underground, as the child had been told.

“I don’t want my father,” he woefully protested, “to be planted!”

“Planted!” cried the mother, throwing up her hands in indignant denial. “Who told you he’d be planted?”

“Madame Lacara.”

“She’s a liar,” said the woman, composedly, without resentment. “We’ll cut the planting out of this funeral.” Her ingenuity, her resourcefulness, her daring, when the happiness of her child was concerned, were usually sufficient to the emergency. “Why, darling!” she exclaimed. “Your father will be taken right up into the sky. He won’t be put in no grave. He’ll go right straight to a place where it’s all sunshine—where it’s all blue and high and as bright as day.” She bustled about: keeping an eye alert for the effect of her promises. She was not yet sure how this glorious ascension might be managed; but she had never failed to deceive him to his own contentment, and ’twas not her habit to take fainthearted measures. “They been lying to you, dear,” she complained. “Don’t you fret about graves. You just wait,” she concluded, significantly, “and see!”

The boy sighed.

“Poddle and me,” she added, with a wag of the head to convince him, “will show you where your father goes.”

“I wish,” the boy said, wistfully, “that he wasn’t dead.”

“Don’t you do it!” she flashed. “It don’t make no difference to him. It’s a good thing. I bet he’s glad to be dead.”

The boy shook his head.

“Yes, he is! Don’t you think he isn’t. There ain’t nothing like being dead. Everybody’s happy—when they’re dead.”

“He’s so still!” the boy whispered.

“It feels fine to be still—like that.”

“And he’s so cold!”

“No!” she scorned. “He don’t feel cold. You think he’s cold. But he ain’t. That’s just what you think. He’s comfortable. He’s glad to be dead. Everybody’s glad to be dead.”

The boy shuddered.

“Don’t you do that no more!” said the woman. “It don’t hurt to be dead. Honest, it don’t! It feels real good to be that way.”

“I—I—I don’t think I’d like—to be dead!”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” the woman replied, thrown into a confusion of pain and alarm. To comfort him, to shield him from agony, to keep the shadow of fear from falling upon him: she desired nothing more; and she was content to succeed if but for the moment. “I tell you,” she continued, “you never will be dead—if you don’t want to. Your father wanted to be dead. ‘I think, Millie,’ says he, ‘I’d like to be dead.’ ‘All right, Dick,’ says I. ‘If you want to, I won’t stand in your way. But I don’t know about the boy.’ ‘Oh,’ says he, ‘the boy won’t stand in my way.’ ‘I guess that’s right, Dick,’ says I, ‘for the boy loves you.’ And so,” she concluded, “he died. But you don’t have to die. You’ll never die—not unless you want to.” She kissed him. “Don’t you be afraid, dear!” she crooned.

“I’m not—afraid.”

“Well, then,” she asked, puzzled, “what are you?”

“I don’t know,” he faltered. “I think it makes me—sick at the—stomach.”

He had turned white. She took him in her arms, to comfort and hearten him—an unfailing device: her kisses, her warm, ample bosom, her close embrace; he was by these always consoled….

Next day, then, in accordance with the woman’s device, the boy and his mother set out with the veiled man for the Church of the Lifted Cross, where the obsequies of Senator Boligand were to take place. It was sad weather—a cold rain falling, the city gray, all the world black-clad and dripping and sour of countenance. The veiled man said never a word; he held the boy’s hand tight, and strode gloomily on—silent of melancholy, of protest, of ill temper: there was no knowing, for his face was hid. The woman, distinguished by a mass of blinding blonde hair and a complexion susceptible to change by the weather, was dressed in the ultra-fashionable way—the small differences of style all accentuated: the whole tawdry and shabby and limp in the rain. The child, a slender boy, delicately white of skin, curly headed, with round, dark eyes, outlooking in wonder and troubled regard, but yet bravely enough, trotted between the woman and the man, a hand in the hand of each…. And when they came to the Church of the Lifted Cross; and when the tiny, flickering lights, and the stained windows, and the shadows overhead, and the throbbing, far-off music had worked their spell upon him, he snuggled close to his mother, wishing himself well away from the sadness and mystery of the place, but glad that its solemn splendour honoured the strange change his father had chosen to undergo.

“Have they brought papa yet?” he whispered.

“Hush!” she answered. “He’s come.”

For a moment she was in a panic—lest the child’s prattle, being perilously indiscreet, involve them all in humiliating difficulties. Scandal of this sort would be intolerable to the young Boligand widow.

“Where is he?”

“Don’t talk so loud, dear. He’s down in front—where all the lights are.”

“Can’t we go there?’

“No, no!” she whispered, quickly. “It isn’t the way. We must sit here. Don’t talk, dear; it isn’t the way.”

“I’d like to—kiss him.”

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed. “It isn’t allowed. We got to sit right here. That’s the way it’s always done. Hush, dear! Please don’t talk.”

With prayer and soulful dirges—employing white robes and many lights and the voices of children—the body of Senator Boligand was dealt with, in the vast, dim church, according to the forms prescribed, and with due regard for the wishes of the young widow. The Senator was an admirable substitute; Dick Slade’s glorious ascension was accomplished. And the heart of the child was comforted by this beauty: for then he knew that his father was by some high magic admitted to the place of which his mother had told him—some place high and blue and ever light as day. The fear of death passed from him. He was glad, for his father’s sake, that his father had died; and he wished that he, too, might some day know the glory to which his father had attained.

But when the earthly remains of the late distinguished Senator were borne down the aisle in solemn procession, the boy had a momentary return of grief.

“Is that papa in the box?” he whimpered.

His mother put her lips to his ear. “Yes,” she gasped. “But don’t talk. It isn’t allowed.”

The veiled man turned audibly uneasy. “Cuss it!” he fumed.

“Oh, father!” the boy sobbed.

With happy promptitude the veiled man acted. He put a hand over the boy’s mouth. “For God’s sake, Millie,” he whispered to the woman, “let’s get out of here! We’ll be run in.”

“Hush, dear!” the woman commanded: for she was much afraid.

After that, the child was quiet.

From the room in the Box Street tenement, meantime, the body of Dick Slade had been taken in a Department wagon to a resting-place befitting in degree.

“Millie,” the veiled man protested, that night, “you didn’t ought to fool the boy.”

“It don’t matter, Poddle,” said she. “And I don’t want him to feel bad.”

“You didn’t ought to do it,” the man persisted. “It’ll make trouble for him.”

“I can’t see him hurt,” said the woman, doggedly. “I love him so much. Poddle, I just can’t! It hurts me.”

The boy was now in bed. “Mother,” he asked, lifting himself from the pillow, “when will I die?”

“Why, child!” she ejaculated.

“I wish,” said the boy, “it was to-morrow.”

“There!” said the woman, in triumph, to the man. “He ain’t afraid of death no more.”

“I told you so, Millie!” the man exclaimed, at the same instant.

“But he ain’t afraid to die,” she persisted. “And that’s all I want.”

“You can’t fool him always,” the man warned.

The boy was then four years old….



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