"The Eyes of the Heart"  (1912) 
by Ethel Watts Mumford

From The Century Magazine, Vol 43 (new), 1912

I told his mother everything I thought might interest her. I painted Jem and Jem's life with a glowing palette. I extolled his virtues, and left unsaid those things which should not be said. To my surprise, a quaint, tolerant smile wrinkled her aged lips.
"Ye 'r' a guid laddie and a true friend, but I ken"—she hesitated—"I ken, though o' late I hae na seen."



"IF you do go to Scotland," Jemmy Lowrie had said in a tone implying that it was quite as doubtful as my ultimate arrival in the hereafter reserved for the righteous—"if you do, go to see my old mother. She's seventy, puir creatur', but a blithe body, and she 'll love ye for my sake. Tell her ye 've seen me in the flesh, sober, honest, and God-fearin'. She 'll believe ye, lad, and ye 'll be doin' a real kindness."

Now, the vaguely possible of that far time was become reality. A chain of untoward circumstances had drawn me home. I stood upon the braed hillside, and looked out upon the dancing Spey, the rolling haughs, and distant heather. My promise came to my mind, and with it the shock of contrast as I minded the day when Jemmy had laid his command upon me. For it was upon a hot, trade-wind-swept noon on a dot of an island in the blue immensity of the Pacific, when we had just discovered that we were not only brother Scots, but that the same Spey Valley had seen the first of both of us. Jemmy had heard the call of the out trail long before I had answered, so I had never known him save as one of "Auld wife Lowrie's stravagers"[1] until I had happened upon him raising cocoanuts and a tan-colored family on the sun-kissed beaches of Lanai.

"Maggie," I called, as my sister passed, going toward the tennis-court, "is auld wife Lowrie still alive?"

"And well," she answered. "Seventy-two year' old, and lives by her ainself in the wee housie yon." She pointed far up the purpling mountain to a tiny spot of white. "Will ye be goin' to see her?"

"Aye," I answered, falling into the dialect of my boyhood. "Jemmy, her youngest, I met on the other side o' the world. She 'll be glad to hear tell o' him." I glanced at my watch. "I 'll have time before supper, and the twilight holds."

"Bide a wee," said Maggie, and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen wing. In a moment she returned with a small basket. "She's auld, the puir wife," she explained, handing me the light burden. "She's the second sight. Gi'e her the cake and a dram." From my sister's words and inflection one would naturally have gathered that second sight was a disease for which sweets and stimulant had been prescribed by the doctor. I took the foolish burden and started off at a brisk stride. "Bring back the napkin," called frugal Maggie as I turned into the hill path.

Up and up I went through the pine-woods' dim green and verdigris copper, across the open stubble fields of gold and brown, out upon the moors, all amethyst in the late-afternoon light. The spot of white took shape as a low granite building thatched with straw. A mass of dahlias, as glorious as the burning bush of Moses's vision, filled the small square of the front garden. On my nearer approach, a lean collie came out from the open gate, and after the due number of growls and barks of protest, decided to make friends, preceding me with many blandishments to the very door-step. A small, red hen eyed me askance from her perch on the window-sill, but did not deign to move. There was no sign of any human occupant. I knocked at the worn, weather-stained door, and was startled by its instant opening.

Before me stood Jemmy's mother, a tiny creature who could have walked with ease beneath the elbow of her stalwart son. She stood erect, her threescore years and twelve sitting lightly on her narrow shoulders. Her face was round, shriveled, and lined, like a long-forgotten apple, and the bloom of former years had settled to just such a mossy hairiness as one sees on a withered peach. Over her head, concealing her locks, if such she had, were a multitude of caps. The outer one, knitted in two shades of red worsted, kept all the others in place, coming down well over her ears, neck, and temples in what appeared an ideal motor bonnet. Her body was almost square, and dressed in gray homespun, with a black apron from chin to floor. Between the white bristle of her eyebrows and the polished ruddiness of her cheek-bones, deep-set, blue eyes sparkled at me with light and life. They seemed more vivid, comprehending, and compelling than any eyes I had ever seen; the watery optics of old age were certainly not hers.

"I'm Peter Ogelvie,"—I bowed and extended my hand,—"Maggie Ogelvie's brother. I saw your boy Jem nae sae lang syne, and I promised—"

The sunshine of May seemed to emanate from her old face.

"Come ben, come ben!" she cried in a cracked treble, seizing my hand and leading me ceremoniously "ben the huse"; namely, into the reserved and preserved "best room." "Ye 've seen my Jemmy i' the flesh! my Jemmy! And was he well, and had he the fear of the Lord?"

"Aye," I nodded, "he was well, and thinking of his mother, for he told me to find her and tell her so." I presented my sister's gift; but she hardly saw it, putting it aside on the red, felt-covered table, and continuing to gaze unwinkingly at me, much as if I had been an angelic visitor from some better world.

I told her everything I thought might interest her. I painted Jem and Jem's life with a glowing palette. I extolled his virtues, and left unsaid those things which should not be said. To my surprise, a quaint, tolerant smile wrinkled her aged lips.

"Ye 'r' a guid laddie and a true friend, but I ken"—she hesitated—"I ken, though o' late I hae na seen."

She looked upon me, and the kindly lies died upon my lips.

Twilight was deepening. She rose, cast a questioning glance at me, then with swift movements, as one having made a decision, she lit the lamp, brought it to the table, removed the album and Bible, and left the room, returning, to my astonishment, with a box of building-blocks such as children play with. They were grimy and battered, and marked with indentations that made me suspect the sharp puppy teeth of the lean collie.

"I'm no fey," she said, looking straight at me.

There could not be any doubt of her sanity. What was strange about her was rather something more than sane—concentration, a power that seemed to lift and expand her whole small person. I was silent. She nodded, pointed me to a chair, drew up one from before the hearth, and sat down. Her wrinkled hands hovered for a moment above the heap of blocks, fluttering, as though awaiting inspiration.

"Here," she said, taking up a splintered square of wood, "this 'll be the big, black rock to the east; and here"—setting down another oblong fragment—"'ll be the tall point, like needles, on the west; and here the hills, four, each with a wee burn runnin' to the sea. The green blockie 'll be the tall tree groves, and this white ain's Jem's huse. Here,"—and she placed a dozen varied blocks in a huddled yet ordered mass,—"this be the toon."

I exclaimed aloud. The blocks exactly topographied the little village street by street; even the wild, accidental angles of its haphazard building were true to fact.

"This," she went on in a monotonous voice, "is the lang huse, where the boats come in, and from there to yon is the sheds for storing." A curved shaving rocked upon the scarlet table-cover. "Jem's boat," she said, nodding sagely. "The bonny big huse there is the plantation—pineapples; ye can smell them to whur the bay lets in, and the brown men's fushin'-cathries lie."

What magic lay in the old wife's voice and the heap of playthings? I sensed them no more. What I saw before me, as though looking down from a great height, was the little cluster of bungalows I knew so well, the iridescent blue of the bay, with its crescent border of glistening sand, the green fronds of palms, streaming all in one direction under the steady impulse of the trade-wind. There stood the copra sheds, the wide-verandaed building of the "general offices." The four hills loomed in the background, each sending its trickle of silver stream to join the diamond sparkle of the ocean foam. Over there was the wide V-shape of the inlet, with the native canoes gripping the furrowed sand of its shores with their curved and painted outriggers. Clearer and clearer grew the vision, like the focusing of a pair of powerful binoculars; then faded as the patch of grayish white that was Jem's house drew swiftly nearer. Now I saw it in all its detail—the oleander walk that led from the gate, and the banana-trees beside the door. Even the fine mesh of the mosquito-net that hung above the hammock in the corner of the veranda was plainly discernible. A broken toy lay on the graveled walk; a bob-tailed Japanese cat, the property of Chang, the cook, stalked a spotted mina-bird. I saw the fringes of the hammock swing in the wind, and the start of the hunted bird as the cat darted out from behind a clump of flowering-ginger. I had a sense of waiting, of watching intently for some one or something. It grew into suspense, became agonizing.

Then the door opened, and Naula came out—Naula, Jem's native wife, dressed in one of the canary-yellow holokus she always wore. She pushed back the door and turned again to the house. Another agonized moment of suspense, and she appeared again, leading Jem.

Then I knew what it was I had dreaded to see. Poor Jem, poor lad! How wasted he was, how white, how changed! How little like the lazy, bronze giant I had left behind me! He leaned heavily upon Naula's arm as she walked slowly toward the long, rattan steamer-chair where he was wont of old to loll, reading a month-delayed newspaper as he sipped a whisky and soda. With great care she let him settle himself, tucking the mat-covered cushions under his back and head, smoothing his yellow hair from his forehead with a gentle, brown hand. He turned restlessly, as though in pain or impatience, and for a second I experienced the peculiar sensation of his looking direct and unseeing into my face. As though in answer to his bidding, Naula left him. He lay unmoving, gazing straight before him. I knew just what he saw from that place on the veranda. It commanded the outlet of the harbor. Through the circular opening in the vines, always kept cut back that the view might be unimpeded, one saw every sail or oar that made the passage through the reef.

The look in Jem's eyes told me plainly that the weekly steamer to Hilo was making her way through the opening, nodding solemnly as she met the first great rollers of the Pacific, the dingy black of her smoke smearing the pure atmosphere of that unsullied land. Homesickness stared from Jem's sunken eyes, heart-hunger, yearning. I felt no surprise when I saw Naula return with a worn, torn copy of the "Views of Strathspey," a souvenir booklet sold by thousands every year to tourists in Scotland, and containing photographic reproductions of the most famous points of interest in our picturesque valley. It had always lain on the wicker table in Jem's bedroom, with a bit of faded heather sticking from between its leaves. In fact, it was my finding it there one day that had led to the revelation that we were fellow clansmen. Jem's poor, thin hands clutched at the tartan-covered book, then weakly let it fall into his lap, where it opened of itself. I knew the picture it revealed—the long, slow slopes of the haughs of Cromdale, with high up on the mountain a spot of white that was home. His eyes fell to the opened page and rested there. Two tears welled, ran heavily down his haggard cheeks, and fell upon the paper.

Around the corner of the bungalow came Aka—fat little five-year-old Aka, Naula's son and his. He crawled up the two steps, ran to the wicker chair, and paused.

Jem took no heed; the slow tears continued to fall on the opened book.

The child pouted and came closer, peered into his father's face with engaging playfulness. There was no response. He stamped his bare foot. Then seeing that for some reason he had ceased to exist for his father, he crumpled into baby despair and began to cry.

Naula came out, gathered him up, cast a frightened glance at Jem, and came down the oleander walk.

She seemed to pass within reach of me like a figure emerging from a cinematograph picture. I saw the distressed pucker in her tender lips, and the trouble in her doe eyes; saw the swift patting of her hand on the heaving back of the sobbing baby, and the swing of her yellow draperies to her free step as she passed me.

I looked from her to Jem. He was quite unaware of his surroundings, his whole attention fixed, hypnotized, by homesickness. He raised a trembling hand to his face and brushed back the tears, then closed the plaid covers over the too poignant reminder, and lay back, still and white, his fine features hardening with his effort at self-control. My heart went out to him. I remembered my own wild longings as I lay fever-stricken in a South African camp hospital. I remembered the mental struggle literally to "keep a stiff upper lip" before my nurse, and the absurd way I had treasured my one scarf-pin, inventing reasons for having it near me, because it contained a fresh-water pearl I had found one day in a Spey mussel. A wave of self-pity for my own past sufferings distracted me for a moment from Jem, and—I found myself staring at a red table-cloth, a heap of building-blocks, and a pair of withered hands.

It was some moments before I could collect my senses, could even raise my eyes above those gnarled and work-reddened fingers, to the face of Jem's mother. When at last I did, I saw in her wide, far-focused eyes the reflection of that last look of her boy—the same yearning outlift of the soul. She sat trance-like, her lips moved once or twice, as if words trembled there, then settled into their accustomed wrinkles.

"Jemmy! Laddie!" she cried at last, and held out two shaking arms to the empty air.

The call and the gesture thrilled me through. I felt the shiver of unseen presences, the electric tingle of contact with the unknown. I must unwittingly have moved or uttered some exclamation, for she suddenly turned to me, letting fall her extended arms as the light of understanding came upon her face once more and the focus of her eyes seemed to draw inward. She read a question in my mind.

"Nae, it's no his wraith. He 'll be bonny and well again. But, oh, I was fain for drawin' him hame—my bairn, my ain bairn! Oh, it's sair, it's sair!" she wailed. "It's the curse o' the women o' Scotland to be the mother o' stravagers—children that must wander far and far."

Mrs. Lowrie took my hand. "Ye 'r' a wanderer yerself, Peter Ogelvie. Dinna ye ferget how yer ain pine fer ye—dinna ferget, lad. Come hame sometimes to them that lo'e ye." I knew that though she addressed her prayer to me, that it was a message she would have me take. "Gude-nicht. It's late I 've kept ye; and thank ye fer comin' to comfort a puir auld body."

I stumbled out into the cool night, under the keen, still starlight of Northern autumn. The pungent smell of dahlias came to my nostrils, and the breath of the heather. Afar a tiny trout stream babbled in the bracken, the faint incense of burning peat was wafted up from the distant town. I looked up, and the stars seemed very near.

  1. An old Gaelic word in common use, meaning "wanderers."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1940, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 82 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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