Open the Door!

Catherine Carswell

Preview: Issue 1 of 51

BOOK I

... Open the door and flee

2 KINGS IX 3

CHAPTER ONE

I

For Juley Bannerman to leave home was in any case a heavy undertaking. Even without her four children, even with the admonishing help of her husband, the occasion was one for which complicated plans – gallant but not availing – had to be laid weeks beforehand. And on this morning neither alleviation was hers.

As always she had done her best, of course. The night before she had not undressed, had not so much as taken the hairpins from her aching head. Then since breakfast her two daughters, aged twelve and fifteen, had rushed about the house, strapping and unstrapping luggage, and exhorting her. Her confused servants had done what they could. Even her little sons had tried to help, and as the four-wheeled cab went lumbering over the granite setts of the city, they strove unskilfully to knot up her bonnet strings between them.

But it was all no use. The morning express from Glasgow to Edinburgh, said the porter, had been gone these two minutes. Now there was no train until ten minutes past twelve.

Smarting, not for the first time, under this kind of public ignominy, the children precipitated themselves upon the pavement before Queen Street Station, and Georgie, the eldest, a stout and lively girl, addressed herself with violence to the open door of the cab.

"It's always the same when Father isn't here," she stormed. "I told you we'd miss it, didn't I?" In her rage she could have struck her mother.

It exasperated the children that the culprit still stayed sitting in the cab, untying and retying the black ribbon strings of her bonnet with a little defiance in her face; and they knew she was avoiding their eyes when she leaned forward smiling at the porter, seeking his sympathy, speaking in her warm, pleasant voice.

"Oh! But I feel sure there must be a train before then," she urged, as if by sheer hopefulness she could belie the time-tables. "Let me see the board." And she began a cumbered descent from the cab.

For a woman of but forty-two, even allowing for the fact that at this time she was some months gone with child, Juley moved heavily. Not even the loss of a night's rest could rob her face of its girlish freshness, but this very youthfulness and ardour of expression served to emphasize her physical ineptitude. It was as if she had never grown used to her body. Often enough had her children heard her sigh impatiently for wings.

Yet Joanna, her younger daughter, looking on, could not believe that swiftness and grace were not mere matters of goodwill, and that therefore this clumsiness was deliberate. "Why will mother move like that?" she questioned in childish vexation. And driven by a strong craving, she stared away from the imperfection facing her, and set her eyes instead on a patch of the blue, perfect sky of May which had shone out suddenly between showers above the house-tops.

"The man must know about the trains, Mother," Georgie scolded, and turning to the porter she asked him when the twelve o'clock train reached Edinburgh.

"But Aunt Georgina's lunch is at one!" declared the elder boy, Linnet, when he had heard the reply; and spinning on his heel he seemed to find a zest in adding to the family misfortunes. "Aunt Georgina will be cross! And what about the carriage? It'll be waiting at the station for us."

At this a disconsolate exclamation came from Sholto, the youngest. Sholto did so love to sit by Mackintosh, his Aunt's coachman whose fur cape smelt of naphtha, as they drove along Princes Street.

Georgie glared murderously at her mother.

"It's all because Father isn't here," she repeated.

But the time-table had showed a train that would leave the Central Station in half-an-hour. So the luggage was put back on the railed top of the cab, and the children crowded into it for the five minutes drive. Their last difficulty lay in getting their mother to break off a conversation with the porter. She had discovered that as a lad he had attended her husband's Bible Class for Foundry Boys: and now she was telling him about the Evangelistic tour Mr. Bannerman was making in the United States of America. She had to be pushed and pulled, protesting, into the cab. Then some one remembered that a telegram must be sent to Aunt Georgina. But at last they were set out on their way again, and they were soon arranging themselves in the train.

II

Though the third-class compartment which the Bannerman family had secured to themselves would have seated ten full-grown people with comfort, it now appeared so to overflow with animated life that other travellers, valise in hand, passed it after one hesitating glance through its windows. Certainly the children from the moment of their entrance did everything they could think of to repel fellow-passengers. Not only was this by tradition essential to the joy of a journey, but if strangers got in, Mrs. Bannerman was sure to talk to them. She loved and idealized strangers, eagerly furnished them with reading matter, and was swift in leading the talk to eternal verities – all of which was a severe trial to her daughters in their sensitive teens. In most ways leading quite detached lives, and feeling a good deal of contempt, each for the other, Georgie and Joanna were at one in this: they hated any publication of their mother's peculiarities.

And so young Sholto was posted at one of the platform windows and told to grimace with all his might at anyone who seemed to have designs on the door-handle, while behind him, Linnet, disguised as an invalid, lay at full length, propped slightly by a hold-all and covered to the chin with his mother's shepherd's-plaid shawl. In another window an umbrella, crowned with Sholto's glengarry and draped with Linnet's reefer coat, served as an additional scarecrow.

In all this the leader was clearly Georgie. She gave her orders in Double Dutch, a secret family language much used and treasured by the four, and the younger ones did her bidding more or less. To the mother's fitful supplication for quiet, no one paid much attention. But really Juley was as youthfully elated as any of her children at the adventure of travelling, and they knew it. Her satisfaction, together with great pride in her unmanageable flock, beamed from her. She enjoyed, too, arranging the hand-luggage on the racks and beneath the seats, and was joyfully looking forward to opening the letters of that morning, one letter bearing the Philadelphia postmark. She had a day-old newspaper to read as well, and had brought with it several issues of The Believer and of Distant Lands – some of these still in their uncut wrappers of weeks ago and showing marks of dust. In the current number of The Believer she knew there was a breezily up-to-date article by her husband, entitled "Are Miracles Essential?" To read with a clear conscience was a luxury Juley never enjoyed at home, where calls on her time and strength were unending, and household duties, in spite of her three servants, ever in arrears. Already on this journey she had expressed some of her pleasant anticipations to the kind guard who sympathized with their loss of the other train. Next, to her daughters' distress she confided in the ticket-collector. "We are going," she told him, "to the Assembly of our dear Free Church."

"I do wish, Mother, you wouldn't tell every one where we are going," objected Georgie the moment the door was closed again. "People only laugh at us. That man was laughing. I saw him. What's the use of telling him that Grandpapa came out at the Disruption? He's probably a U.P. anyhow."

"Dear, dear, how sensitive you children are," replied Juley undisturbed. She was annoyingly accustomed to such rebukes, and feeling suddenly hungry she opened a small paper bag and began to eat from it with relish. She had thriftily saved half a buttered roll from their hasty breakfast.

"What if he did smile, Georgie?" she went on between bites. "It will do him good to smile, and us no harm."

Georgie blew an irritated breath, and settling herself with a wriggle in the corner where the umbrella had been, she resolutely opened the book she had brought with her. It was Sartor Resartus. She did not understand it, but it exhilarated her with a sense of superiority to the rest of the family. She glanced scornfully across at her sister who was reading Tit-Bits , indulging an inferior appetite for mere bits of curious information.

The train had moved out of the station, but just then it slowed down and stopped on the high bridge which there spans the Clyde. Joanna, from learning how many times a sovereign beat finely out would engirdle the earth, looked up and out of the window. Below her, framed in the great transverse shanks of the iron grille, the water looked so beautiful that she could have called out. Yet something kept her quite still and mute in her corner.

It had been raining half an hour before, but now the sun gleamed on the brown surface of the river and on the wet, grey granite balustrades of the Jamaica Bridge. The bright red and yellow horse-cars flashed as they followed each other northwards and southwards along shining rails, and the passing craft on the water moved in a dun-coloured glory. By one bank some paddle steamers were being re-painted for the coming season. Joanna with the others had often sailed in them for summer cruises, and she knew by the number of funnels and their colours to which line each boat belonged. She knew the dredgers too, obstinate in mid-stream, with their travelling lines of buckets trawling glittering filth from the river-bed, while passing them, a string of half-submerged barges and rafts hung behind a little panting tug. Less familiar was a giant liner that made her slow way seaward. Her decks were deserted. Only a negro leaned, gazing, upon a rail astern.

This picture, cut into sections and made brilliant by the interposing trellis of black metal, appealed not so much to the little girl's untrained eye, as symbolically through her eye to her heart which leapt in response. The sunshine on that outgoing vessel and the great, glistening current of brown water filled her with painful yet exquisite longings. She did not know what ailed her, nor what she desired. She got no further than thinking that she would like to be a stewardess when she grew up.

With a warning cry and a long shudder the train, which had only stopped for a moment, started again. But before it had passed over the bridge, Georgie too, glancing up from her reading at the disturbance, caught sight of the river.

"O, look! Just look! Look at the river, all of you!" she shouted, rushing across the carriage. "Mother! Joanna! Isn't it simply lovely? Isn't it exquisite?" And in her enthusiasm she dragged her mother to the window at which her sister was seated. "Only look there!"

Juley leaned to look back at the retreating vision. She had laid her hand on Joanna's shoulder, partly to steady herself, partly in affection.

"Yes, dears, beautiful!" she agreed with warmth. "God has put us into a beautiful world. Let us try and make our own lives to match it!" And after a pause she quoted words which had risen in her mind at the sight: "They go down to the sea in ships, and see His wonders in the mighty deep."

Joanna felt miserably inclined to shake off her mother's touch which had increased to a meaning pressure on her shoulder. It seemed to violate her, and she guessed with hatred at the pleased, ready tears in her mother's eyes. Even while her own tears pricked painfully behind her eye-balls at the beauty of her mother's words, she threw up frantic defences against their bid for her sympathy. Not for the world would she have yielded, not for the world could she have told why. The familiar, absurd thought came to her that she was perhaps a changeling or foster-child in the Bannerman family, no real relation to any of them. How else explain this trouble, this obstinate aloofness that was so common with her?

As for Juley she sat in her place and reviewed her little family, her "hens of gold" as she loved to call them. God in his infinite mercy, she mused, had seen fit to give her the charge of these four immortal souls; and she would, with His help, try not to fail in so great a trust. In the scurry that morning she had not found time to kneel as long as usual by her bedside. Without constant and secret prayer she knew herself unable to face the difficulties of daily life. So now she closed her eyes and prayed. She prayed for each of her children, including the one yet unborn: for strength and wisdom to guide their feet in the way of peace: for her husband in Philadelphia, and the work he was doing among souls there between the intervals of his business. Lastly she prayed for the whole family of mankind. But prayers embracing the human race are so generous that upon the soul that offers them they have the soothing and releasing effect of a wide landscape or a river which has quietly overflowed its banks. And this is what happened to Juley Bannerman. A sense of extraordinary peace lapped her about. The white Believers and the blue Distant Lands she had thought to enjoy, were destined to travel back to Glasgow a week later in their unviolated wrappers. She slept.

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