Arachne. No. 3
The House is Old. Early colonial. Its wooden walls are faded; weathered a pale, green-tinged ochre. They soak up the rain and darken, like damp clay.
Above the broken lipped chimneys rises a small octagonal shaped turret room, a great suspended prism of windows where, at certain times, opalescent pools of colour melt, drift and glister over the glass. One frill of scallops runs round beneath the spouting while between this and the windows shines an insertion of blue and frosted panes. Like a bubble the little room upstairs lets through the outside light in contrast to the verandahs which have been half closed in at the corners with a geometry of red and purple glazing and gloomily dampened by a knitwork of shrubs. The great belly of bow windows is draped in velvet, the glass being patterned with lace roses and perpetually half-drawn bottle green blinds, blinds that curb the lace impatient to sneak outside with the wind.
Lillas Howell stood at one of the turret windows. She could have put out her hand and touched the winding wistaria heavy with flowers that curtained a downstairs verandah, but her big ringless hands, glazed, nobbled, faintly freckled from age, lay resting on a wet chamois leather and a piece of white jap silk, worn almost transparent. Her drawn back hair was iron grey, fuzzy where it escaped from a tor-toiseshell pin; her features were strong; the expression was dour, the short sloped line between the brows deep, puzzled, frowning; and the reddish purple frock, reaching high and tight around a prominent throat exactly matched the little cobweb of thickening veins on each cheek. And yet the face suddenly changed, the eyes brightened and the sparse sandy brows lifted eagerly as sheets in the yard beneath strained from their lines, cracking like whips.
'Mother', Lillas shouted, 'it's a grand day for the washing.'
And the answer came, tremulous and irrelevant. 'As sure as my name is Ellen-Christine Howell that's an angel with long curls looking in my window.' The tone ranged from thin soprano to broken contralto. It was the voice of a very old woman. Lying deep in her bed, the soft, collapsed, simple looking face framed with a neat plait of white hair showed among the many frilled pillows.
'You're seeing things, mother. I've told you it's nothing but a nor'west cloud', the daughter said, her smile going.
'Iook at his beautiful eyes', the old woman went on. 'I wonder what he thinks of this wicked world. And don't you go whispering about me to your sister. I want the binoculars. Do you hear me? Bring them at once.'
Lillas trod heavily down a creaking, carpetless stairway; very narrow; but by the time she came up again bringing the binoculars her mother was asleep. She returned to the kitchen where her sister was lifting shut the little iron door across a grating, in front of the stove, with a short, bow shaped handle. The woman turned to Lillas.
'As mother used to say, this range just eats up the coal', she said.
'But you've forgotten to turn down the damper. Can't you hear the flames gallivanting up the chimney, Nell? Before we know where we are wel'll have all those clean night-gowns ruined with soot.'
Nell slipped the fresh ironing from a high drier and stood nursing it, folding the things into her apron with arthritic shaky hands while Lillas drew down the pulley cord, winding it round a hook on the wall. The mellowed lengths of bamboo swayed and creaked above their heads. A red and blue checked cloth for dusting the bars hung over one end. Nothing had been changed in fifty years. The golden hammer of an eight-day glass-cased clock whirred and struck eleven.
'These stairs will be the death of me, Nelly. I'm weary to the bone, and I don't like the look of mother at all. She's cantankerous. She's getting quite queer. We shall have to move her down to the big bedroom.'
'And put up new curtains then, Lillas dear?'
'Indeed we won't. Where's the money for curtains? There's still some life in mother's old page 9 red serge. If we hung lace ones underneath. And that'll cover up the borer and keep out the glare. Maybe they'll keep out some of mother's angels if there's less light.'
Two two women paused, burdened with memories, between them the kitchen table scrubbed into a grey map of smooth hollows and knife cracks.
Years ago the mother had slept in the turret room with the younger children. One of them had been born there, brought in a basket carried by an angel, so had believed the children. Divided from the plushy rooms and varnished dados downstairs the airy retreat for children had protected the late James Howell from their early crying. Later the room fell into disuse. From the northern windows there had been a fine view of their garden and orchard until, after the father's death, they had been forced to sell half the property. The boundary then ran through the rose garden. A new house sprang up and new children played over a tidy lawn where once the young Howells had filled their pinny pockets with apricots and pears. At first the mother lamented her loss day and night, but after a while she transferred her tin box of wills and insurances to the turret room for extra safety and so she was able to make this box an excuse for spending some of each day staring from the windows, noting every movement of her neighbours, as if by knowing how often they changed their sheets she was able to possess them in return for the loss of her land. When she became deaf and bedridden she forsook her domination of the house and returned to this room, where she had slept for the last three years, the tin box under her bed, its keys hanging round her neck in a black satin bag.
But she had been seeing things for weeks.
And so they carried her, wrapped in blankets, down into the core of the house, through the kitchen, along the hall, under the chandelier that had been her pride, past the picture she had painted on silk. Nelly turned a loose cream doorknob. It was cool and dim in the spring cleaned bedroom but for a beam of dustmotes that sloped from the blind down to a foot-worn rose on the carpet. The old reddish furniture had been wonderfully polished, the white curtains starched and all the fussy gilt handles rubbed up. The cleanness was like a scent, Nelly thought, but the brown walls droping with dark grapes and huge leaves were surely further than ever from the garden outside.
The mother seemed smaller now in the large double bed, in the larger darker room where the space was swallowed up by a massive mahogony wardrobe with crystal handled tiny drawers running down each side of the full length mirror, the mirror alone giving back some sense of distance and of reflected though subdued light. Here, among yellowing faces staring from ornate gilded frames she lay quiet enough although once she cried out sharply that there was a man in her room, near the wardrobe, with waxed red whiskers. The sisters hastened to sooth her, to pass it off lightly, for hadn't she always been fanciful and superstitious they told each other; hadn't she always wept if she saw the new moon through glass. Hadn't she always suspected every man who knocked at the door, of evil intentions.
But they heard no more of the man in the mirror and she was easy until the day the young Presbyterian minister came to call on the Howells.
She asked him at once, wasn't the manse damp? 'It has been damp from the beginning. I think it's built over a stream', she said. 'They must have been wicked elders to buy such land for a minister of god.' And then she whispered to the young man, though loudly and hoarsely in her deafness, that he put her in mind of her own little Jamit who died. 'Wrap up warm, Parson', she told him. The young Reverend Lawrence moved up closer to Ellen-Christine's bed. He chatted pleasantly shouting a word every here and there in the old woman's ear.
She kept nodding her head as if she were understanding, then her mouth fell open and she dozed while the sisters poured and handed tea, but she woke with a start crying 'Bless me', and tugging at the minister's sleeve she began to whisper that the 'man' had come back. He was over there by the wardrobe making glad eyes at someone and, sure as eggs were eggs, it was Tom Mathias, her poor dear Nelly's rogue of a husband.
Lillas Howell went on talking, from long habit ignoring her mother's mumbo jumbo, but the mother's cracked voice shrilled at them; her wrinkled arm rose up out of the pink knitted sleeve, pointing and quivering.
'Pity's the day you set eyes on my Nelly. Have a care, Tom Mathias. Maggie Moyle's leading you a pretty dance, the bissom, just like you led my poor Nelly. Nab him Parson. Spring off your tail Lillas. O my poor heart. He's slipped through your fingers. He's run off—in his father's gig—with my brandy. My head! Stop it, can't you stop the noise of the wheels."
'Now mother', Lillas said quietly, 'don't fret yourself and drink a little tea.'page 10
'He's stolen his father's gig, has he! That'll hurt the old man. But who'll pay the piper, you girls . . . she moaned now lying still, her nose and her eyes outlined with blue and the face like wax. '. . his little bairn, Nelly's new born bairn sleeping in its crib . . . but don't think father and I are made of money . . . don't tell the parson I'm dotty . . .'
For the young parson it was just another old woman with a wandering mind. He'd seen such things before. The sun made his face hot, burning in under the half-drawn blind. Next door the neighbour trundled his child on a barrow of leaves down the path, past a hedge. The young laurel leaves at the top were gleaming. In the wardrobe mirror the reflections were tinged with a disconcerting yellowish hue. 'Our Father . . .' the parson began to pray.
Nelly Mathias was shaking. That dead and dreadful past that she had tried to outlive through Oliver her son. She rose up and carried away the tea cups. Hurt? She had nothing in common with the young parson but her nerves were not what they used to be, and for the life of her she could not speak for herself. I've been happy, mother, she longed to answer, but she knew that nothing she could ever say would impress her family, or the town for that matter, like the stale tale of her husband Tom going off in his father's gig with the fast handsome widow, Magdalen Moyle. Humbly she washed the thin china cups, carried them to the dresser. It dismayed her to hear her feet shuffling across the worn linoleum, to see that her slippers were familiarly shaped with the same bulges and worn down heels she had watched coming in her mother's shoes. She emptied the tea-pot, rinsed it, and left it upside down to dry; she carried the blue rimmed strainer to the back door and threw away the tea leaves on to a mound under some geraniums. She unpegged tea towels and put away the peg basket on a shelf beneath the mangle, taking care to drape the mangle with its turkey red cover. The family habits were now fitting her like her own gloves. How often she had told Oliver stories of her life in this house, and yet now that she had come home she felt as if the very hooks and shelves were intent to destroy the last of her youth, as if the damp drab walls were compelling her to accept old age. And what an effort, a burden, had become this struggle with the dust that would keep rising up between the widening cracks in the floor boards. Even though it had all been done in the morning she could see even now the tiny heaps of yellow dusty powder near the legs of the umbrella stand, and in the slanting afternoon sunlight the dumpy turned legs showed up their lace-work of borer holes.
Nelly Mathias came slowly into the front of the house to find Lillas.
Lillas was speaking with a school girl. The girl's hair, tied by a ribon, hung down her back in a heavy tail, coarse shining kindy hair, and she was fiddling with a long end of braid knot ted about her tunic.
'This is Mary', Lillas said. 'You remember Mary's mother, Kathy Essler, Nelly?'
Essler, Nelly thought. Kathy Essler, the young Irish servant blushing to the roots of her black hair. And now, so soon, Kathy's likeness, Mary.
'I remember your mother as if it were yesterday, Mary,' Kelly said.
But Mary had to go. She would tell her mother had bad poor Mrs Howell had been taken. Her mother would be sorry. The sisters watched Kathy's daughter flying down the hill beyond their garden, steering her bicycle with one hand, the other pressed on the crown of her white hat. The brim blew back from her rosy face and at the end of the brick wall she waved. Then the bicycle raced out of sight.
'She's a headwind every stone of five miles', Lillas sighed.
'Don't fash yourself, Lillas dear, the girl's young,' Nelly whispered. Tears came into her eyes. But Lillas thought her sister wept for their mother.
'Shut the door', she said briskly. 'We'll be having dust all through the house.'
It seemed that the Reverend Lawrence thought the mirror in the wardrobe was giving Mrs Howell her fancies; but even if something, something sudden, should be done about it, first they must send for their brother Will who had always, Nelly remembered, when all was said and done, been able to twist their mother round his little finger.
Will Howell, the lawyer, was shocked to see the change a few months had brought, to see his mother so much at all their mercy—no more ruling the roost, no more keeping up of appearances. The tight plaited wreath of hair above her soft shrunken face reminded him that at last old age had placed her beyond vanity, not that he would remember her like this, but rather how she had with long strokes brushed her hair down from the wide pink parting into a snowy flying cape and then, separating it into three strands had fluffed it up, rolling it over her two fingers, and finally stabbed it with pins into the shape the world knew her by—not this tidy wreath that other hands had woven.
At first he made a pretence of conversing with her, sitting close, shouting simple questions, but he could no longer reach the mind he had known, so he held her brittle fingers and page 11 listened to her memories. She was wandering through the eighty odd years of her life, living in whatever time she chose. Although he knew emphatically that his mother's mind had gone to pieces it still left him feeling an outcast, when he saw that the child she doted on was neither himself nor any of his living sisters but Jamie, a boy who had died before his parents emigrated. Will Howell had always seemed the Prodigal son had come home, a banked on his mother's affection. Now it figure in a glass; a delusion. That his mother's mind was failing was one thing, but to see her wanly smiling and crooning to the empty mirrir left him with a feeling that was close to shame. For Lillas this mirror-gazing was just another daily worry. What, indeed what would be left for Lillas when she need no longer answer mother's life-time of habits. For poor old Nelly a word in passing was enough to send her hysterical with a theatrical kind of sympathy; it made his blood boil to hear her speak of little Jamie in the present tense: 'Little Jamie's lost in the heather with his grandpa Baillie Howell, and they've nothing but a communion cloth to keep out the cold, Wil'—it was as if she really believed the twaddle his poor mother told them. And worse than this were the long solemn lustful faces of neighbours who gathered round the door in the evenings to be astonished, lugubriously beguiled, by stories of Ellen-Christine's latest fancies.
To end it all he came to a quick decision. They must remove the wardrobe. No, not that, for she had never cared for changes. They must cover up the glass, tell her they were sparing her eyes from the light.
Lillas took a long length of lilac print and hung it over the mirror, leaving the little drawers showing, and seeing the stuff again the mother was pleased, for she remembered that from lilac print she had made the children's sunbonnets and she thought for a long time about how well it had worn and she was calm again. For days she was calm.
But one morning, all at once, her sickroom bell, crazily tinkling, brought them all running. She was moaning, her head turning slowly towards them. 'Are you stone deaf?' she whimpered. 'Listen, Lillas. O Nelly there's a little child lost in our roof, up under the rafters. Mammy, mammy mammy. It's lost. It's under the rafters, crying, Nelly; mammy, mammy mammy. It's lost. Go and look.' The last flicker of vivacity, of suspcion, had died down in the once large eyes which were filmy now and small under the drapery of the lids, and the cheeks were never without tears lying passively in the first met wrinkle. There was no rest for Lillas and Nelly for morning, noon and night, no matter how hard they worked to keep the sickroom fresh, except when she slept they must answer her bell until each one was dropping with tiredness, they must pretend to be searching, high and low, for the lost child calling, for the silent sobing that only the deaf could hear.
Mammy mammy—Nelly would hear it in her sleep. It was a wee bit of a cry a long way off but in the dream she would hurry between narrow walls, just as a long time ago, after Tom had left her, she had hurried to her own child, to the white cot in the room at the end of the hall.
Since she had come home Nelly had been given a spare room. She lay there now trying to sleep. There was little in this room but its bed and table; a photograph of herself as a girl, with a cloud of long waving hair tied on top; but the features were fogged and the large placed eyes seemed to know nothing of life. Once she had seen her mother kneeling on this very same yellow hearth rug, going through the servant girl's trunk, feeling right down to the bottom. Triumphantly her mother had held up a slipper and shaken out from the toe two little silver earrings, two crosses. The girl had been packed off with tight-lipped advice and the crosses returned to a green leather jewel box. To the vault of the family's past.
Shall I not be stifled . . . ? Yes, mother had often thrilled them to the marrow with her dramatics, and she'd learned all her lines from the theatre itself, not from books. Mother had always been a simple soul, ruling the roost, but simple tastes. I met a little cottage girl. She liked putting out the crumb tray to the birds. Where had all the birds gone when the orchard was cut down?
Into the Mathias pine trees across the gulley? Mathias—her name and Oliver's all these years. An old man—old Donald Mathias, going like the Lord of Creation, in his knickerbockers, down the main street, on a daily tour of inspection; down the winding track his father's bullocks had travelled, carrying wool; the name of a Scottish village painted on his five-barred gate in the tussocks; hard as nails; mean as dirt.
An old man. Near with his money. But an old man. No little Oliver had ridden on his knees. She had taken all she could from old man Mathias and his childless daughters. She had disowned him just as his son had disowned her. Hadn't it been enough to endure his screaming and cursing and keaning over his stolen gig and grey? She had looked but once, before she left her home town, into his sagging face, and had passed him without recognition.page 12
Hard as stones, little Nelly Howell, the youngest of five, father's pet. She had left him, jogging in his pony cart up the long hill to his sonless house, his knees covered with a fur rug, his hand blue and slack on the rein. That town house was still there, a stone's throw away, and for all she knew there might still be Mathias kith and kin sleeping under the sodden greening slates, watching small new busy houses springing up on the land where their stables and pigeon house had once lured romantic boys and girls. But she—she had had to watch the Mathias full slack lips and handsome disguising moustache re-shaping on her son's face.
When Nelly Mathias woke she felt stifled. Her throat was dry. Her heart was going at top. She had had a dream and in the dream she had seen little Jamie leading Tom across a street. Tom was walking with timid shuffling steps, and together he and the child went up to the door of a public house. There Tom had stood underneath a splintered glass verandah roof while the rain poured down on him, and he was playing on a toy concertina as if his life depended on it. His face, blank and leering, looked kind of daft until suddenly he began to bawl like the raving loony old drunks who had scared her stiff as a child; but when he turned round to go inside the pub she read Come Into the Garden, Maud, hanging in a golden text across his shoulders. Then Jamie had danced up to her shaking a sailor cap and whispering, A penny for the Guy, sister dear. But just as she put out her hand to touch Jamie's curls the tenderness that had welled up in her was bitterly quenched by the sight of her Celtic grandfather, Baillie Howell, standing high up above her in a pulpit, thumping and haranguing with his clenched fist, and his long white Scottish beard was burning round the edges. She was choked by the dust that rose up and clouded out of the pulpit cushion, while Baillie Howell shouted Adultery and Charity until she saw dimly, through the dust, that the pulpit was really a small white box, narrow, with six silver handles.
The relief that the dream was over. But she left her bed. Who were they, who were Lillas, Will, and herself to take away sight from the dying? She must go and take down that old bit of lilac from mother's wardrobe mirror. She must go now.
She slipped into the windowless hall where it was still dark and began to grope her way along, feeling the bubled up patches on the wall paper, patting at doors, runnning her hand along the umbrella stand, the way she had trodden that very hall as a child, but then much faster, in a frenzy to be past the hump-backed shadow thrown by her father's black coats. If only she were not so stupid and weak, blind as a bat in the darkness, toddling past the skirting boards like a done old man tapping gutters with his white stick. And then she must have taken a step too few before turning, for her face met thick musty smelling cloth, the velout: of winter coats, the coats of the dead or departed that had been saved for a rainy day, and she knew that the tiny knocking sound was the rim of a bowler hat rocking on its hook. Cold rushed through her, the old guilty fear at disturbing taboo possessions; daring to open mother's best umbrella in the hall and bring bad luck on the house; mother; mother going with a thin ebony brush all over father's hard hat, her ring clicking on its brim. It used to hang on Sundays at the back of the church in the cloakroom where the elders left their hats and umbrellas. It was all muffled in there with solemn whisperings under the low ceiling and the heads were bald and the beards were white. And then she had followed father's slow tread; his coal black boots. She had always been in time under father's wing.
She pushed at the wall to free herself but her loose hair had wound round one of the coat buttons and, fumbling for it with chilly fingers she thought, it used to be mother's hair, the silvery rolls enclosed in the white net, that had snagged on father's waistcoat button when he kissed her. She started to weep and giggle.
'Lillas,' she called softly, 'Lillas.'
At once, almost at once her sister came towards her and untangled her hair, and Nelly, following Lillas, walked slowly back to the spare room. In the doorway she saw that it was morning; the light was coming, showing up little wreaths of silver on the wallpaper. A gust of wind whirled out the curtain, fanning on her face.
'Fell the nor'wester blowing up, Lillas', she said. But Lillas Howell elbowed away the meshes of curtain and clasped the blind, pressing around its frail papery edges with her big vein rippled hands. Then she began to draw it down, letting it slide over the window at a snail pace that hushed the click of the roller, and dark slipped over the walls and took away the colour from the wreaths, the gleam from the glass.
'Mother's gone, Nell', the elder sister said and drew the blind down beneath the sill, holding it there a moment before letting go, for the spring had a habit of jerking back with a snap.page 13
'You didn't call me', Nelly whispered, going cold.
'Dinna say that. Dinna. She went in her sleep', Lillas answered without turning round.
But Nelly Mathias knew she had been called, only she had gone too late to give back the mirror, and so nothing could be altered. Ever. She pressed her hands to her ears. Now she would hear the poor bairn crying in the rafters until Kingdom Come.
A little gust blew out the blind, tapping the slat and cord bobble gently against the wall. Lillas Howell slipped her hand in behind it and closed the window.
The house is old. Early colonial. Its wooden walls are faded; weathered a pale, green-tinged ochre. They soak up the rain and darken, like damp clay.