My mother was constantly working, for her literary efforts were our only means of support, my father having died before I was born. The picture that always comes to mind, when thinking of her, is of spindles of grey-flecked dark hair escaping from beneath her cap and falling over her cheek, as she sat bent over the large square work-table that was set before the parlour window. There she would sit for hours at a time, sometimes well into the night, furiously scratching away. As soon as one tottering pile of paper was complete and despatched to the publisher, she would immediately begin to lay down another. Her works (beginning with Edith; or, The Last of the Fitzalans, of 1826) are now quite unremembered it would be disloyal to her memory if I say deservedly so; but in their day they enjoyed a certain vogue; at least they found sufficient readers for Mr Colburn to continue accepting her productions (mostly issued anonymously, or sometimes under the nom de plume A Lady of the West) year in and year out until her death.
Yet though she worked so long, and so hard, she would always break off to be with me for a while, before I went to sleep. Sitting on the end of my bed, with a tired smile on her sweet elfin face, she would listen while I solemnly read out some favourite passages from my precious translation of Monsieur Gallands Les milles et une nuits; or she might tell me little stories that she had made up, or perhaps recount memories of her own childhood in the West Country, which I especially loved to hear. Sometimes, on fine summer nights, we would walk, hand in hand, out onto the cliff-top to watch the sunset; and then we would stand together in silence, listening to the lonely cry of the gulls and the soft murmur of the waves below, and gaze out across the glowing waters to the mysterious far horizon.
Over there is France, Eddie, I remember her saying once. It is a large and beautiful country.
And are there Houyhnhnms there, Mamma? I asked.
She gave a little laugh.
No, dear, she said. Only people, like you and me.
And have you been to France ever? was my next question.
I have been there once, came the reply. Then she sighed. And I shall never go there again.
When I looked up at her, I saw to my astonishment that she was crying, which I had never seen her do before; but then she clapped her hands and, saying it was time that I was in my bed, bundled me back into the house. At the bottom of the stairs, she kissed me, and told me I would always be her best boy. Then she turned away, leaving me on the bottom stair, and I watched her go back into the parlour, sit down at her work-table, and dip her pen into the ink once more.
The memory of that evening was awakened many years later, and has ever since remained strong. I thought of it now, as I puffed slowly on my cigar in Quinns, musing on the strange connectedness of things; on the thin, but unbreakable, threads of causality that linked for they did so link my mother labouring at her writing all those years ago with the red-haired man who now lay dead not half a mile away in Cain-court.
Walking down towards the river, I felt intoxicated by the thought that I had escaped discovery. But then, whilst paying my half-penny to the toll-keeper on Waterloo Bridge, I noticed that my hands were shaking and that, despite my recent refreshment at Quinns, my mouth was dry as tinder. Beneath a flickering gas-lamp, I leaned against the parapet for a moment, feeling suddenly dizzy. The fog lay heavy on the black water below, which lapped and slopped against the piers of the great echoing arches, making a most dismal music. Then, out of the swirling fog, a thin young woman appeared, carrying a baby. She stood for a few moments, obliviously staring down into the blackness. I clearly saw the blank despair on her face, and instantly sensed that she was about to make a jump of it; but as I moved towards her, she looked at me wildly, clutched the child tightly to her breast, and ran off, leaving me to watch her poor phantom figure dissolve into the fog once more. A life saved, I hoped, if only for a time; but something, perhaps, to set against what I had done that night
Excerpted from The Meaning of the Night, copyright (c) 2006 by Michael Cox. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton and Company. All rights reserved
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