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Nine

Christmas came with the snow deep all around them. They had a turkey and cranberry sauce and a plum pudding with brandy blazing above it, and candies and nuts; certainly the old lady was no niggard, even the cow, pig, and hens got extra rations that day. But dinner was late in the day, early in the morning they got up to exchange presents and open their stockings. On Christmas Eve the little old lady had dug into a black teak sea-chest and produced a pair of white giant wool stockings that once had been Mat’s. “They’re very old, but I’ve kept them wrapped and powdered and the moths have never got in them. They were always a joke, these stockings, between Mat and me, for the feet are at least sixteen inches long and the legs at least three feet. They were knit for Mat by a Cape Island woman, and well knit, I think she must have been in love with him. Mat used to wear them under his sea­-boots on deck, but once when we loaded in Murmansk, I used them for bed socks and they reached clean to my thighs.”

Rosalie laughed, “You are a great one for adventures, big and little.”

So on the shelf behind the stove they had tacked Mat’s giant stockings and had waited like children to see what Santa Claus would bring them. Two travelling pedlars and the grocery car had visited had

them in the week before Christmas and they had secretly filled these stockings for each other; packages of nuts and candies, toilet soaps, pencils, bottles of mucilage, writing pads, ink, pens, coring knives, ribbons, salt shakers, chewing gum, oranges, life-savers, an odd potato and a lump of coal. The little old lady was as pleased as a child when she emptied her pile of little gifts on the kitchen table. Rosalie had managed to buy a miniature barque fully rigged in a bottle, the work of some old sailor, and this pleased the little old lady more than any­thing. She cried a little as she turned the bottle over and over in her wrinkled hands and looked closely at the hull and rigging. “It’s all correct, Rosalie, oh what a lovely gift, only perhaps the spars rake back too far.”

Rosalie was just as pleased with the heap she drew from Mat’s old stocking, for amid all the little things there was one article of value, a silver-backed hair brush with stiff bristles such as Rosalie had always longed for. “Oh, Old Lady,” said Rosalie, going to her and putting her arms around her and kissing her, “I think you are the nicest old lady in all the world, I think I shall live with you always.”

“Oh, no, I won’t last for always. When the warm spring comes you must be off to travel the roads of the world, else you’ll have no interesting stories to tell when you are old. You never can get the whole of life second hand.”

For real presents Rosalie gave the old lady a wine-coloured dress­ing gown of soft wool, and the little old lady gave Rosalie a dark blue ski suit. “Now you can rig out properly to shovel snow,” she said slyly.

After dinner they drank several glasses of port and then they sang together, Rosalie in her sweet young voice and the old lady in tones made light and faint by age, the Christmas songs ‘Noel’, ‘O little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, and ‘Holy Night’, that are the common inheritance of all our race.

“It’s too bad that we’ve finished with ‘Great Expectations’. Do you think we could go over it again?”

“Oh, Little Old Lady,” said Rosalie, “of course we will if you like but now we’ve got ‘Les Miserables’, and I’ve looked forward so to that.”

“Of course, it would be stupid to go through ‘Great Expectations’ again, that’s only the whim of an old lady trying to recapture her youth. But Dickens does seem somehow the Christmas day author. Couldn’t you read just a bit, the bit about the capture of the convict on the marshes, I think that happened on Christmas day. You’re unhappy if you’re very rich, Rosalie, but it’s dreadful to be desperately poor. Dickens had such sympathy for the poor and wretched that he always puts you on their side.”

Rosalie got down the book and found the place, long icicles hung from the roof’s edge and glittered through the window, and the wind swirled about the eaves. The stove cracked merrily and they were both warm, contented and happy. Rosalie began:

 

“I know, but this is another pint, a separate matter. A man can’t starve, at least, I can’t. I took some wittles up at the village over yonder—where the church stands, a’ most out on the marshes.”

“You mean stole,” said the sergeant.

“And I’ll tell you where from. From the blacksmith’s,”

 

“You see,” interrupted the little old lady, as was her habit, “he’s trying to cover up and protect little Pip. Down and out people are often like that, they have loyalty to them that help them.”

 

Rosalie read on:

 

“Halloa!” said the sergeant staring at Joe.

“Halloa Pip,” said Joe, staring at me. “It was some broken witties—that’s what it was—and a dram of liquor, and a pie.”

“Have you happened to miss such an article as a pie, blacksmith?” asked the sergeant confidentally.

“My wife did, at the very moment when you came in. Don’t you know Pip.”

“So,” said my convict, turning eyes on Joe in a moody manner, without the least glance at me, “So you’re the blacksmith are you? Then, I’m sorry to say, I’ve eat your pie.”

“God knows you’re welcome to it—so far as it was ever mine,” returned Joe with a saving remembrance of Mrs. Joe.

“We don’t know what you’ve done, but we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable creature—would us Pip?”

Then something that I had noticed before clicked in the man’s throat, and he turned his back.

 

“Now, there was a miserable creature for you, deserted by all the world, and there was Joe the kind man anxious to help him if he could,” declared the little old lady.

“But most awfully hen-pecked,” said Rosalie, “why didn’t he assert himself with his woman?”

“It’s often that way with big men and skinny women. It’s just as the book says, she had a master-mind, and the master-mind is bound to rule.”

“I think your stories are just as interesting as Mr. Dickens’. Why don’t you write your stories down and make a great fat book about them?”

“My dear, you don’t know what you say. I can tell stories, yes, but written words are quite different from spoken words. There’s a kind of magic in written words. I’ve tried and tried to write them down, when I was so long alone, to write them down just to get them out of my system, when they seemed boiling up inside me, but you see they won’t come out the end of an ordinary pen or pencil. Everything I try to write down seems stiff and unnatural and silly, and not the least bit true inwardly; my fingers itch, my muscles stiffen up, and my brain’s paralyzed. There’s something very strange about writing when one isn’t used to it and has no flair for it.”

“Perhaps,” said Rosalie, “I could write them down as you told them to me.”

“No, that wouldn’t do at all. I’d go too fast or you’d go too slow and we’d be all in a muddle. The story wouldn’t flow, and when you read it out afterwards, the sentences would all go tumbling over each other, like little boys skating on a slick pond.”

“I could go fast, and remember a lot,” said Rosalie.

“No, my dear, it would be just the same as if I’d written it. I’d stiffen up and all the written words would be dead and dull, just like flying fish that glitter skimming in the sunshine, and when landing on deck are just dead little fish.”

“Nobody ever told me before,” said Rosalie, “that there’s such a difference between speaking and writing.”

“There is, there is, why when a woman says ‘No’ it may mean twenty things, everything from real ‘No’ to intended ‘Yes’. But when you write down the word ‘No’ it’s just ‘NO’, nothing more or less. There’s with it no gleam in the eye or gesture of the hand or movement of lips or cheek muscle, it’s just plain ‘No’. I don’t see how authors do it.”

“I suppose some people are born with a bent for writing,” said Rosalie.

“That’s it, you’ve got to have a natural talent for writing just as you do for being a great sailor man. I’ve got no talent for writing. Now Dickens had. Mat had a talent for sailing a ship. He never had to think long, he knew by instinct how to help a ship and he acted quick.”

“Do you think every human being has something he could do well, do you think God has made us so?” asked Rosalie.

“Certainly, and it’s very sad when people are stuck into jobs all their lives that they’re not handy at, and have no liking for.”

“Do you suppose, Old Lady,” said Rosalie, “that I’ll ever find out what I should do and what I can do? I don’t know yet, I’m only wandering.”

“Of course you will. That’s why you came to me, that’s why you opened the carriage gate by the half-burnt church and came up the lane to this little yellow house. I’m old and have a little wisdom, and when you’ve done with me you’ll go on and on till you find yourself and your own mate.”

“Go with your story about the Arethusa in the tropics, Old Lady, that will complete a wonderful Christmas day.”

“I’ll never be able to tell you everything, Rosalie, the winter won’t be long enough.”

“Then spring will come.”

“When long spring evenings come, we’ll be out of doors fussing over plants. You’re only nineteen, Rosalie, and with the spring some sap will rise up in you and I’ll one day see you gazing at a far off horizon.”

“Oh,” said Rosalie, “I should like to hear the end of your stories; what with the books we read, I think it’s better than going to college. I’m learning so much that my world seems swelling out everyday.”

“Well, after we crossed the Line, lovely days and lovely nights drowsed away, and the old Arethusa dwadled along through the Doldrums where there’s scarce any wind, till we struck the Southern Trade winds. They blew south-west if I remember. After awhile we began to smell strange smells, pleasant smells, smells like cinnamon and cloves and nutmegs and coffee, and scents of flowers, and the sea took on another colour for the great Amazon flows into it. Mat told me we were off the coast of Brazil, though we could see no land as yet. Then we sailed south for some days till we came to the entrance of a spacious bay, and there spread out from seashore to hillside was the beautiful city of Buenos Ayres, a blaze of colour. It seemed all green and pale yellow and red, for trees grew about the houses and everywhere were masses of Bougainvillea and Flame Flower. I stood with my mouth open in wonder at this first sight of a great southern city.

“But when we dressed and went ashore, the people did not seem so appealing as their city. The men were full of smiles, but they were fat and greasy. I wouldn’t trust one of them the length of my nose. ‘Dagos’ the men called them, but afterwards I learned that English­ speaking sailors call all French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks or Italians or anyone that hails from the Mediterranean Basin, ‘Dagos’.

“The women were beauties, and they did rig themselves up in black veils, fancy shawls and mantillas, and they’d all been in the paint pot up to their ears, and their eyelashes were all lacquered with some kind of shiny stuff. The business of the upper-class women in those ports is looking beautiful. In those hot countries they haven’t much natural colour, and they daub or paint and powder. There was an old fellow in Schenectady who made a pot of money manufacturing and shipping by the ton ‘Pink Pills for Pale People’, to the women of Brazil and the Argentine. Here on the streets they stared at Mat and me more than they did in Antwerp or Hamburg, and laughed at us a little too, as if we were wild people from the frozen north. Once in awhile a nice woman gave me a smile, as if she enjoyed my natural complexion and rosy cheeks.

“At night there was always twanging of guitars, and men singing in tenor voices, and making a great fuss about their love affairs. They reminded me of roosters in a spring barnyard, only of course roosters can’t sing. But when I got about a little I learned from experienced women —one especially who spoke English and taught me Spanish—that northern men are by far the most intense and enduring lovers. So remember that, Rosalie, if ever any Dago man comes hanging around hat in hand.”

“Little Old Lady,” cried Rosalie impulsively, “I might as well tell you, I’m married already, I was married for over a month and that’s what I ran away from. I can’t ever have a lover and right now I don’t think I ever want one.”

“I thought there was something like that behind your running away. Rules and regulations can’t hold two unhappy people together and sometimes they can’t hold two happy people apart. It would be too bad never to find your mate. I was so happy with Mat that I wish that happiness for every woman, though I realize I was very lucky and that it cannot always be.

“To get on with my story, Mat and. I took a holiday for six whole days, while they were getting the general cargo out of the Arethusa and reloading her. We took a funny little train and went through the hills, and then on and on by horseback. Behind Buenos Ayres are vast plains as far as the eye can reach. I felt at home there because the plains seemed limitless like the sea. I had never seen such a land, where every­thing in nature and apparently without cultivation, grew in a kind of savage profusion. The grass grew breast high, and the wind moved it like waves of the sea, and great cloud shadows raced across it, like squalls when a breeze is getting up; and in all the damp places were patches of bright coloured flowers; everywhere strange gay birds fluttered and everywhere on these vast plains were herds of red and white cattle watched over by cowboys, that were half Indian, who rode as if they were part of their horses. At night we stopped in low-roofed, single storey farm houses called haciendas, and though we could not understand each other’s tongues, the people were polite and kind. There I used my first few words of Spanish. When we were riding over the plains I would say to Mat, ‘We’re so happy it can’t last,’ and he’d laugh in his quiet way and reply, ‘Sure it will last, we’ll be happy together till we’re old, old people sitting by the fireside. Surely the Lord God wants us to be happy.’

“Years and years afterwards, since I’ve been living alone in this little yellow house, I read two books by a man named Hudson, who knew that land well, ‘Far Away and Long Ago’, and ‘The Purple Land’, and they brought back to me all those happy days on the Pampas till my old heart was almost bursting with joy and sorrow.

“In Buenos Ayres there were many Germans, in fact all the big shipping houses were managed by Germans—they’re a more solid people than Portuguese and Spaniards—and because of the German I’d learned I was able to help Mat a good deal. And I was learning Spanish too, Spanish is much easier than German. Oh, I was ambitious and eager to learn in those days.

“We got a freight to Melbourne, Australia, and that was a long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. And it was on this voyage that I pestered Mat to teach me navigation. I wanted to know everything, Rosalie. Mat laughed, but after awhile got a big volume called ‘Norrie’s Epitome’ out of his chest and said, ‘Read that for a starter, Kitty, if you’re bound to ruin your pretty eyes, that’ll hold you most of the way to Melbourne. Here’s the other book that goes with it,’ and he gave me another fat book by an American named Bowditch.

“I won’t stop at Melbourne,” said I, “for I mean to sail the seas of the world with you, till we’re so blind we can’t tell a red buoy from a black one, and someday I’m going to learn to take a sight and check it against the position by dead reckoning. Do you know what dead reckoning is, Rosalie?”

Rosalie shook her pretty head.

“Well you see, a ship on the ocean tows behind her a twirling instrument called a log, because at first they really used a log that didn’t twirl at all, and that tells how fast the ship is sailing, and from that how far she travels in twenty-four hours. Then you take the course that you’ve given to the steersmen, and plot the distance given by the log on the courses sailed, on a big chart in the chart-room. So every day you can tell almost where you are by dead reckoning, and that’s easy and very good fun. But it doesn’t give you a true position, because there are currents and great rivers running through the sea, that wash you hither and yon. Of course most of these currents and their directions are known, but often they change their speed or alter their course a little. Even after you make allowance for currents you are a little wrong, so at dead noon the Old Man—that’s what the men call the Master, no matter how young he is—takes the height of the sun, and works out his latitude from that, his longitude he gets from the chronometer that keeps Greenwich time. Do you understand, latitude and longitude, Rosalie?”

“A little,” said Rosalie, “they’re the circles that run around the earth east and west and north and south on the map.”

“That’s right and where your latitude and longitude lines cross, there you are. I pegged away at navigation and languages and never was idle from the crack of dawn till midnight. We had a little foot-pump organ in the cabin and sometimes I’d play and sing for Mat. He liked ‘The Rose of Tralee’ best of all. He used to tease me when he saw me scowling over Norrie’s Epitome. ‘You’ll never get on with logarithms, Kitty, they’re hard,’ he said. ‘I hardly understand them myself, they’re all rule of thumb to me.’ ‘I’ll try hard anyway,’ said I, for you must never let a man know that you’re one lap ahead of him. I wasn’t going to tell Mat that I’d learned logarithms in school, and that when I wanted to multiply big numbers, I added the indices to the root of ten, and sub­tracted to divide.”

“I know that too,” said Rosalie. “I learned that too, logarithms are only quick dodges for multiplying, dividing and getting square and cube roots.”

“That’s right, you’re bright as a new button, you’ll go somewhere, Rosalie.”

“So I pegged away at Norrie and Bowditch and after awhile learned how to shoot the sun and a star. I wanted to know everything that Mat knew about sails and ropes and spars and yards and stowing cargoes, and battening down hatches and painting and cleaning ships. Everything about sailing on a ship is exciting. I’d like to have learned to go aloft and tie down a gasket on the end of a royal, but Mat drew the line at that, and I knew it would never do myself, for while we played silly games in the cabin we had to keep up some show of dignity before the crew for the sake of discipline.

“At last we made Cape Town and there we lay for a week, taking on water and fresh provisions and making a few minor repairs to one of the spars that had sprung a little in a gale. We went up-country, first by train and then by horses and oxen in Cape-carts, and there for the first time I saw black and brown men, living in Kraals and villages. I began to wonder then why God made some men white, some black, some yellow and some chocolate coloured. You see, Rosalie, when you are brought up in a little community with its village life, its schools, its settled very limited opinions, its churches, its innocent little parties, and its funny social distinctions, you get a very meagre idea of our world and none at all of the universe.”

“Don’t I know that,” said Rosalie. “Oh, Old Lady, teach me how to learn.”

“I learned a lot by observation, Rosalie, and I expect you will do the same.

“These brown and black people bothered me and I began to look about me. South Africa is a strange country with worn mountains that you can tell at a glance have been half-washed away, and suddenly I knew by some kind of intuition that the world was old and tired, very ancient and tired, and shrinking like an old lady. And I knew too that these black and brown men had been on the world a very long long time, and had been the same for long ages. Perhaps the hot sun had coloured them. Anyway, later in many years of travelling, I saw that hunger and climate and necessity, and geography, rivers, bays, lakes, seas, and mountains are the forces that have made men what they are.

“When I got up country and saw Zulus, Kaffirs, and little bands of pigmy bushmen, that it is said shoot poisoned arrows from their blow-pipes, I knew that these could not all have sprung from one pair of idle lovers in an idle garden.

“Then too I saw the great bearded Boer farmers, rough, strong, heavy-handed people sprung from Dutch or German stock. Everyone was talking there of gold and diamonds—men love gold and diamonds, and will risk all for the adventure of getting them—and men, the most desperate and most daring were flocking in to South Africa from all lands to tear down hills and screen gravel for gold. There were plenty of gold-rush shanty-built towns full of saloons and the type of women that follow the gold-diggers—not like the slim, dainty girls of Antwerp—a coarse type, themselves gold diggers. And there were names that I heard on every tongue—Cecil Rhodes and Barney Bernardo, great business men and promoters; Paul Kruger, the Old Testament patriarch and Chief of the Boers; and a great, powerful, savage king named Benguala. And ever they said that these three forces would one day clash, and sure enough they did, and Savage and Patriarch, who worshipped a fierce Old Testament God, were beaten by the men who loved gold and diamonds. You’ve heard of the Boer war, Rosalie, where the farmers almost beat the English?”

“I’ve heard a little about it,” said Rosalie.

“Now I’ve talked your ear and arm off, old ladies can never stop chattering about the past since they have no hope for the future. It’s been the happiest Christmas day, Rosalie, I’ve spent in thirty years.”

Rosalie won fifteen cents at rummy, in fact the little old lady discarded to her obvious disadvantage so that Rosalie might win. It was cold and bleak outside, warm and snug within. It would take them a week to finish the turkey and there would be turkey soup to follow. They put away their presents and went to bed and Rosalie, snug and warm and well-content, said a prayer of thankfulness before she dropped into forgetfulness.

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Nine by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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