Much of this little story is acknowledged by the author to be autobiographical. Jess is drawn from Mr. Barrie’s own mother, who was afterward more carefully pictured in his novel entitled Margaret Ogilvy; while Leeby is a portrait of his sister. The author’s own character has much in common with Jamie; and the little village of Thrums finds its original in Kirriemuir, where Mr. Barrie was born and reared.
AT the top of the brae still stands a one-story house whose whitewashed walls look yellow when snow comes. Into this humble abode I would take anyone who cares to accompany me. On the left of the doorway is the “room.” The passageway is narrow. There is a square hole between the rafters, and a ladder leading up to it. You may climb and look into the attic, as Jess liked to hear me call my tiny garret room. I have kept the kitchen for the last, and the window where Jess sat in her chair, and looked down the brae. For more than twenty years she had not been able to go so far as the door. With her husband, Hendry, or their only daughter, Leeby, to lean upon, and her hand clutching her staff, she took twice a day, when she was strong, the journey between her bed and the window where stood her chair. She seldom complained. All the sewing of the house was done by her, and she often prepared her baking on a table pushed close to the window.
I stayed only once during the whole of my holidays at the house on the brae, but I knew its inmates for many years, including Jamie, the son, who was a barber in London.
Jess’s rarest possession was a christening robe, that even people at a distance came to borrow.
From Jess’s window a great deal could be seen that went on in Thrums, and often she sent Leeby up into the attic to see whether smoke was coming out of the chimney of the spare bedroom at the manse, in order to learn whether a guest was expected. When anyone passed the window, Jess and Leeby took intense interest in them, and discussed the probability of their going here or there for this or that purpose. When Lawyer Ogilvy’s servant passed with two jugs in her hand, Leeby was sure that she was going for cream as well as for milk, and that there was company at the lawyer’s house.
One night Jess was taken with diphtheria, and she thought she was going to die. Leeby ran for the doctor, but he was away in the hills and did not come till dawn.
“This is a fearsome nicht,” Hendry said. He sat down by the kitchen fire with his Bible on his knees. But Jess recovered.
Hendry often crossed over to the farm of T’nowhead and sat on the fence of the pigsty. Here a gathering that was almost a club held informal meetings. Tammas Haggart took the lead at these meetings, and he had a great reputation as a humorist.
“A humorist doesna tell whaur the humor comes in,” he said. “A humorist would often no ken ‘at he was ane, if it wasna by the wy he maks other fowk lauch. A body canna be expeckit baith to leak the joke an’ to see’t. Na, that would be doin’ twa fowks’ wark.”
Twenty years had passed since Jess lost her boy Joey. He was run over and killed, and that was the tragedy of Jess’s life. On the Sabbath-day Jess could not go to church, and it was then, I think, that she was with Joey most. He had meant to be a minister when he grew up, and told his mother his first sermon should be from the text, “Thou God seest me.”
Jess’s staff was old and black, and very short; nearly a foot having been cut from the original, of which to make a porridge ” thieval,” or stick with which to stir porridge. Joey had once hidden it when Jess was very ill, after he had heard her say that she was going very far away. He knew she could not walk without it, and thought that if he hid it she could not go away.
When I was with Hendry beaded cloaks were the fashion, and Jess sighed as she looked at them. They were known in Thrums as the Eleven and a Bits.” Her only opportunity to handle garments was when she had friends to tea. Hendry was not quick at reading faces, but he saw that Jess wanted a cloak. He told her she could never wear it, and it would have to be kept in a drawer. She said she could take it out and look at it, and she would know it was there. And then he told her that no one else would know it.
“Would they no!” answered Jess. “It would be a’ through the town afore nicht.”
Hendry finally saved up money and bought her the cloth for a cloak, and gave her money for the beads and buttons.
Hendry, Leeby, and I were invited to drink tea at the manse with the minister and his bride, a very grand lady from Edinburgh. Leeby shaved her father and dressed him, and the family agreed that he looked unusually “perjink.” The minister’s wife said afterward that Leeby seemed very stupid and unobserving. But I heard Leeby describe to Jess everything in the parlor and in the bedroom where she went to take off her hat.
Jamie sent a registered letter containing money to his mother every month, and Jess was always greatly excited when the day came for it to arrive. There was much talk about it between her and Leeby, and Jess was up earlier than usual looking for the postman.
Jamie came once a year from London to visit his parents. On the previous year he had listened at the window for his mother’s voice, and heard her say to Leeby that she was sure the teapot was running out. He then imitated an old man who went about selling firewood, and pushed open doors, crying:
” Ony rozetty roots?” and Leeby, going to shut the door, was surprised to see Jamie.
This time, as usual, Jess was very much excited, and Leeby was up at two in the morning, and eight hours before Jamie could possibly arrive Jess had a nightshirt warming for him.
Hendry, Leeby, and I walked out to meet Jamie, and when we saw him he and Leeby made signs that they recognized each other as brother and sister, but I was the only one with whom he shook hands. He even inquired for his mother in a tone that was meant to deceive me into thinking he did not care how she was. He pretended to be calm, but I saw him take Leeby’s hand afterward; and when we came in sight of the house he suddenly exclaimed :
There was only one other memorable event of that day. Jamie took from his pocket a purse, and from the purse he took a neatly folded piece of paper, crumpled it into a ball, and flung it into Jess’s lap. Leeby was in the secret.
“What is’t?” asked Hendry.
“It’s juist a bit paper Jamie flung at me,” said Jess, and then she unfolded it.
“It’s a five-pound note!” cried Hendry.
Leeby loved her brother Jamie dearly, and as a boy he was ashamed of it, for the boys teased him about it. He used to beg her not to show her affection for him before others.
“You’re aye lookin’ at me sae fondlike ‘at I dinna ken what wy to turn. Am no tellin’ ye no to care for me, but juist to keep it mair to yersel. Naebody would ken frae me ‘at am fond o'” ye.”
As a boy, Jamie refused to go to kirk one Sabbath-day, and went off with some Tilliedrum lads in a cart. He returned at dark, defiant and miserable. Jess was terrified, Hendry prayed for him, and Leeby cried. After midnight Jamie rose and crept to Leeby’s bedside, where she was shaking in agony. She slipped from her bed and both fell on their knees and prayed.
Jess liked to hear tales of sweethearting when Jamie was not the lad. But she had noticed him putting his hand in his pouch two or three times, as if to make sure that something was safe, so she got up early in the morning and got hold of his jacket and found a woman’s glove in a bit of paper. She took it and hid it, and Jamie looked all over the house for it without saying a word. I never knew how Jamie came by the glove, nor whether it had originally belonged to her who made him forget the window at the top of the brae. But he found it after a time, and Jess got it again and hid it. She kept Jamie home from church on the Sabbath because he had a cold, and gave him the glove, and told him she could not bear to think of his carrying that about so careful. And he laid it on the fire, so Leeby told me.
On the last night of Jamie’s stay, Jess packed his box, tying his socks together with string. Hendry read his favorite chap-ter in the Bible, the fourteenth of John’s Gospel, and then he prayed.
Leeby died at the end of the year I have been speaking of, and as I was snowed up in the schoolhouse at the time, I heard the news from Gavin Birse. She ran out in a sudden rain to bring in her washing, and took a terrible cold. She did not blame Jamie for not coming to her. He never got Hendry’s letter with the news, and we knew that he was already in the hands of the woman who played the devil with his life. Before the spring came he had been lost to Jess. But Hendry said the Lord had given his house “so muckle that to pray for mair looks like not being thankful for what we have.” And he prayed that Jess might go before him. But his prayer was not granted. He took a fever, and one night he wandered from the house to Elshioner’s shop and worked at his loom, and there they found him dead. So it came about that for the last few months of her pilgrimage Jess was left alone.
Tammas Haggart was the first to come forward with offer of help. He filled Jess’s pitcher and pan at the well every morning after filling his own, waiting his turn in the line of people who were sometimes at the well as early as three o’clock. Others helped, too. Jess said she would bake if anyone would buy, and many kindly folk came to her door for scones.
Jamie did not come to see his mother. We did not know of the London woman then, and Jess never knew of her. But Jess always had an eye on the brae, even when she was baking, Tibbie told me. Toward the end Jess felt sure that Jamie was dead.
The minister was with her when she died, and she asked him to read the sixteenth chapter of Genesis. When he read “Thou God seest me,” she covered her face with her hands, and said:
” Joey’s text, Joey’s text! Oh, but I grudged ye sair, Joey I” And so she died.
Some time after this Jamie came back and went to the house, but it was occupied by strange people. He asked about his family and was told that they were dead. He looked like a broken-hearted man. He asked about the furniture and his mother’s staff.
“I’ve heard tell,” the woman of the house told him, “‘at the dominie up I’ Glen Quharity took awa’ the staff.”
He spent that night on his mother’s grave, and the next day came to the schoolhouse.
“I came oot,” he said, “to see if ye would gie me her staff-no ‘at I deserve it.”
I brought out the staff and gave it to him. That evening he went up to the old house again and asked to be allowed to stay alone in the kitchen for a little while. Then he went away, and was never again seen in Thrums.