The Coming of the Lamp
THERE was only one lamp in our candlelit part of the town. The Wilsons owned it. They had owned this sign of social superiority a year before it became a vital issue with us.
The Wilsons lived on the front street; we lived in an alley near by. My father and James Wilson had been shoemakers when shoemakers made shoes. But a machine had arrived somewhere, and, instead of one man making a pair of shoes in his own house, forty men and a machine made one shoe in a factory. When somebody told my father that they were making shoes by machinery he said it was a fairy story. It took some years for the influence of the machine to reach our remote part of Ireland, but when my father found himself a cobbler he thought perhaps there might be some truth in the story. Wilson was my father’s chief competitor and occasionally made a pair of shoes. Some of us had an idea that his good luck was due in some part to the fact that he had a lamp.
‘Why don’t ye get a lamp?’ a customer would ask my father.
‘They ’re too dangerous,’ he would reply, ‘an’ they say if ye dhrapped a match in the oil ye’d wreck the house over yer head.’
‘Och aye,’ my mother would say, ‘an’ if the sky fell we’d all have larks!’
Continued suggestions were not without their effect. From the day the Wilsons installed their lamp my father had taken a stand against ‘this highfalutin’ notion of imitatin’ our neighbors.’ But one night he had occasion to visit the Wilsons, and saw for himself the difference.
One day Mrs. Wilson came into our house, and my mother drew her out on the comparative values of lamps and candles. Even if the candles were cheaper, Mrs. Wilson avowed, they would never go back to them. I think my mother staged this colloquy.
‘If there was anybody here who could work the damned thing!’ my father said when Mrs. Wilson had left.
‘The Wilsons had to learn, dear; have they such an awful amount more brains than we have?'
‘We’ve no place to hing it.’
‘Hing it in yer mind first, Jamie, an’ see how quickly ye’ll find a nail an’ a place.’
‘Och, woman, give yer tongue a holiday. It’s “Wilsons, Wilsons, Wilsons,”from marnin’ till night — ye’ve got them Wilsons on th’ brain, Anna!’
‘Dear knows it’s just yerself I have in m’ brain. I don’t want ye to wear yer eyes out at a ha’penny tallow dip when ye might just as well have a nice white light, an’ more of it, for th’ same money.’
We had n’t thought of Jamie’s eyes. We were engrossed with the prospects of a sensation. Down there at the bottom of the world we owned one mark of distinction: we had a singing lark. My father once built a pigsty against the gable of the house, as we hoped to have a pig some day. It never turned up, but long after the sty was used as fuel the hope remained. We were strong in hopes, even though they seldom did boil the kettle. The sty was n’t wholly a matter of waste, either. One night a beggar-man occupied it, and my mother said that in the mysterious providence of God that must have been its main purpose, anyway.
Like the proverbial dropping that wears a hole in a stone, the continual hammering at Jamie’s obduracy wore down his resistance. When he said that we might inquire the cost of the cheapest thing that could be called a lamp, we knew the battle was won.
No sooner had we heard this note of surrender than down we went to Vance’s store.
‘We’re goin’t’ have a lamp!’ I said to Bill Gaynor.
‘Why don’t ye go in fur gas?’ he said with a sneer.
Sensation of this kind had a way of spreading in our quarter. I told every boy and girl I met on the way. All of them were slaves to the rushlight. We were just emerging, and I was the chief bell ringer.
When we returned we were furnished with all the information the town afforded on lamps, wicks, and oil. Later, Jamie confessed that he knew all about such things, for one day he had sneaked into Vance’s unbeknownst and inquired. The next consideration was one of finance. Here was the real difficulty. When the decision was made the house began to retrench and save. I was selling papers at the time, and for the first time really began to care whether people bought papers or not.
When the great day arrived Jamie went for the lamp himself. We were ordered to stay at home and threatened with the strap if we did n’t. Well, if we actually at last got the lamp, the strap would lose its sting. We followed him — at a safe distance.
It seemed to my two sisters and me that never in all our lives had we waited for anything with such nervous anxiety and impatience as we did for Jamie to come out of that store. He was only in there a few minutes, but as we stood at the church gate with our eyes riveted on Vance’s door it seemed hours. Finally he came out with the bundle under his arm, and we moved toward Pogue’s Entry, casting furtive glances backward to watch his movements.
Never was the Ark of the Covenant carried with more care and reverence than Jamie carried that lamp. When he arrived at Darrgh’s blacksmith shop the neighbors were at their doors. Not all of them — I had not had time to alarm the whole of our part of the town. He was puffing lustily at his short cutty pipe, just to look as unconcerned as possible. When he came within fifty yards, we ran and told Anna.
‘Whisht, dear, keep quiet.’ was all she said; but we knew she was just as excited as we were. Before the bundle was opened, the neighbors were discussing it at the mouth of the entry. Some of the more familiar and brazen ones ventured over the doorstep just to pass a few remarks on the weather.
Coming calamities were casting their shadows over the event. Anna, always the gentlest and kindest of souls, grasped the situation and, taking the whole thing out of Jamie’s hands, carried it into the bedroom. Then she returned to entertain the visitors while Jamie struggled with the lamp. When he came to a point when he could go no further without her, he came back, sat down on his bench, and began to work. We were irritated, but a look at Anna’s face told us the whole story. We were content to wait.
The amenities down there, at the bottom of the world, were rather crude. Our front door was like the gate to a public park — anybody felt at liberty to come in at any time. What our neighbors lacked in this respect they made up for in others. They had keen intuitions, and read my mother’s kindly face as readily as we did. On this occasion they did n’t need to be asked to go — they just went.
When the house was cleared, Jamie shut the door and barred it. We gathered around the mystery.
‘Be careful of that chimney,’ Anna said.
‘Oh, don’t be nervous,’ my father said. ‘I handled half a dozen of them in Vance’s jist fur practice.’
‘Did they show you how to light it?'
‘I was lettin’ on I knew all about it.’
Carefully the parts were laid out on the table. A piece of wick was stuck in the burner, and the burner screwed on the reservoir. Jamie struck a match to light it.
‘You’ve forgot something, dear.’
Jamie scratched his head and smiled.
‘Ay, ye’re right fur oncet,’ he said; and then, looking at her, he continued in an abstract sort of way: ‘Will ye iver forget the first box of matches we iver seen?’
‘I mind it rightly.’
‘Ha, ha!’ he laughed. ‘They got wet and we put them close to the fire to dhry, an’ off they went! Ha, ha! Well, well, well —’
‘Oil, Jamie — oil, dear! We can’t keep that door barred all day, ye know.’
Oil cans were discussed. Wilsons, of course, had one. We did n’t know the exact price of them, but we knew that the exchequer could not at that juncture bear the strain. Being most fleet of foot, I was dispatched with a jug for our first pint of oil.
It was with difficulty that I squeezed through the neighbors who crowded the narrow entry. Everybody knew my mission. I told them. Two pals, favorites, were on the street. I took them along.
Down through the town we sped for the oil. I could have gotten it at Farren’s, a few hundred yards away, but, as Jamie would say, we had Vance on the brain.
Jamie had overestimated the price of oil. I had a penny too much. Bob, one of the pals, suggested a stick of barley sugar. I hesitated. Vance might have undercharged and would demand the penny later, and my pantaloons were thin. I stoutly resisted — not because of moral scruples, but because I knew Jamie.
As we came up past the church a lad named Scott stepped in front of me and wanted to settle an old score.
I could n’t settle. I had n’t a marble in my possession.
‘Fight ’im!’ said Bob. ‘Go on! I’ll hold the oil.’
I thought of the barred door and the waiting family. A scrap was a tame affair compared with the lamp, and I demurred. As I moved on, Scott held his arm up and spat over it. The Irishman never lived who could refuse that most aggravating of all challenges and live it down! I handed the oil to Bob and mixed it with Scott. A crowd gathered and egged us on. We were both winded and spent when someone shouted:—
‘ Skip! There’s a policeman! ’
‘We’ll be at Pigeon Hill th’ morra afthernoon,’ said Bob to Scott, as I wiped the blood from my nose and ran uptown.
‘What the devil kept ye?’ said Jamie impatiently, as he opened the door.
‘The shop was full o’ people,’ I said in a tone of injured innocence.
‘Which of them tore yer shirt, dear?’ Anna asked, as she looked me over critically.
Happily for me, Jamie was too much engrossed with the lamp to notice the remark. He was filling the reservoir. That done, he wiped his hands behind the front of his trousers and screwed on the burner. Anna lit it, and he adjusted the chimney. Somebody knocked.
‘Let them dundther!' said Jamie, as the flame shot up through the glass.
Something went wrong. The thing smoked. We were all excited. The chimney must be removed. Instinctively we all saw that at the same moment.
Jamie took the chimney in his hand. He did n’t hold it long.
‘Phewt!’ he exclaimed. ‘I ’ve roasted m’ hand off! ’
And the chimney dropped in fragments on the mud floor.
‘Here endeth the first lesson,’ said Anna, as she picked up the bits of glass and threw them behind the burning peat. Jamie turned down the flame. Nobody said anything, but we all saw clearly that if he had done it sooner he would have saved himself and the chimney.
‘I knew it — I was sure of it from the start,’ he said. ‘I’m goin’ back t’ candles, an’ stick t’ them till I die! ’
Our hearts sank within us, but Anna, always the champion of hope, always the discoverer of silver linings, revived our drooping spirits. Jamie abandoned the project. He sat down at his bench and went on with his work. Anna whispered something to Mary. I did n’t hear what it was, but Jamie seemed to know, for he arose from the bench and raised his voice in protest. That raised voice always made us shiver — not because it meant anything in particular, but because it could be heard outside, in the entry.
‘No, no!’ said he. ‘Ye will not ask Misthress Wilson, nor Misther Wilson, nor Misther Vance aither, t’ come in here and examine our ignorance. If ye do, jist as sure as gun’s iron, I’ll take the whole damned prakus an’ dance on it. I will that!’
’As ye had a little practice in handlin’ them, Jamie, maybe ye’d like a wee bit of practice in dancin’ on these bits first. ’
‘It’s no laughin’ matther.’
‘No, dear, nor dancin’ matther, aither.’
Jamie lit his pipe and smoked as he hammered. Anna gathered up the lamp and removed the activities to her bedroom. She opened the front door and let those who were burning up with curiosity venture in. She then went into her room and shut the door. We followed.
Instead of proceeding with lamp arrangements, she took the money out of her little leather purse and looked at it. She did n’t count it. She knew how many pennies were there. They had n’t increased. She was just swithering what to do. We saw the problem on her face, and were already voting for the chimney.
Jamie was pretending to be in high dudgeon, but he knew in his heart that the problem would not end where he left it. In a few minutes he joined us in the bedroom and shut the door after him.
‘Well,’ he grunted, ‘are ye still crackin’ yer brains over bein’ quality an’ havin’ a lamp, jist because th’ Wilsons have one?’
‘No, dear,’ Anna said. ‘We have decided that. We are jist tryin’ to make up our minds whether we’ll have light for supper— or porridge.’
‘We’ll have porridge!’ said Jamie.
‘I think we’ll have light, dear!’
‘It’s a mortal pity there is n’t an extra pair of trousers in th’ house; ye might put them on jist to show yer authority,’ he replied tartly.
‘Shure, it’s brains and good sense we need, Jamie, an’ if trousers don’t give them to you they would n’t be likely to give them to me, aither.’
‘Egad, it’s quare what odd notions women do have these days,’ he answered, as he went out and resumed his work at the bench.
‘What have ye in yer pockets?’ Anna asked me.
‘A peerie and sthring, an’ four marbles an’ a catapult,’ I answered, with some curiosity and alarm.
‘Lave them all on that window sill an’ run to Vance’s for a new chimney for the lamp.’
The news that we had failed got noised abroad in the entry somehow, and as I came out, with my face aglow and eyes sparkling with excitement, the curious eyed me critically and followed my movements until I was out of sight.
While I was gone, Anna performed a miracle. She persuaded Jamie to hammer a stout nail in a rafter of the roof — just over his bench.
‘It’s not that I’m givin’ in,’ he said, ‘but jist because I know that when a woman makes her mind on somethin’ her tongue keeps waggin’ on’t like a wheel without a cog — ay, that’s it; now ye have it.’
But he took care that it was the right kind of nail, and that it was so driven that a lamp could be safely suspended therefrom. I had left the house under the impression that, the supper money had gone into the lamp chimney, but Anna had resources that often baffled us. When I returned she was preparing supper. Of course, it was n’t the regular ration, but it was supper.
In the twilight Jamie got his old candlestick as usual and arranged the big penny candle in it — a sort of notice to the family that he was determined to hold out to the last ditch.
The parts of the lamp, with the new chimney, were laid out on the bed, and we were ordered out of the bedroom, and the door was closed. Operations were suspended until the neighbors who still hung around got tired, and we had our evening meal.
Hardly a word was spoken that night at supper. We children were excited still —full of pent-up emotion. Toward the close of this abbreviated meal hour we were informed by Anna that outside curiosity was not to be satisfied that night.
‘It’s no use glunchin’,’Jamie said, as he watched the disappointment spread over our faces.
‘Is Mrs. Wilson goin’t’ show ye how t’ light it?’ Mary asked.
‘She is n’t!’ Jamie said, as he glowered at her.
Here was another mystery. Jamie and Anna had evidently struck a compromise — and we had not been informed. We could n’t go out then. We had nothing to tell.
When the town clock struck nine, and Sammy Cooper tolled out the days of the month, we had to go to bed — always. That night, for the first time in my memory, the hours dragged along at an aggravatingly slow pace. Jamie worked at the bench, and Anna was evidently not feeling so badly, for he sang ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ and ‘The Old Gray Mare’ that night. The world was always swinging round correctly on its axis when Jamie sang. Anna evidently was pleased. We could tell that by her face. There was nothing for us to do but grin and bear it — for the night.
As I lay on my pallet in the little half loft I became suspicious that the old folk were going to put that lamp up during the night and rob us of the sensation of being in at the start. They sat at the turf fire, talking in an undertone. From the sound of Jamie’s voice I knew that the storm had passed. The forces of reform had triumphed — the lion and the lamb were comparing notes!
With but a slight movement of my head I could look over the edge of the loft and see them at the fire. There was a candle in the little tin sconce in Anna’s corner, and Jamie had put on a few extra clods of peat. The Weekly Budget had been tacked over the window to prevent curious eyes from looking inside. The opposition to the lamp was not wholly and entirely, after all, a matter of obstinacy or dislike of change. They had their weight in deciding the question, but there was one drawback, equally recognized by both, but now slowly emerging in the confession of Jamie. He did not use it as an argument — the argumentative stage had been passed. It was an explanation.
My three brothers had gone away, one after another, to push their fortunes in other parts. They seldom wrote. Two had to get others to do it, anyway, and the third had a family and cares enough of his own. One of the gentle delusions of that far-off life in Pogue’s Entry was connected with the burning candles that nightly lit up our cottage, and beside which Jamie worked at his trade.
A bright little shining spark about the size of a pinhead would occasionally appear on the burning wick. To us poor folk it was like a little star in a fairy firmament. It was always the harbinger of hope, the forerunner of good news from abroad. It was a sure sign that a letter was on the way. Anna believed it; so did Jamie; so did we all. We would as soon have doubted our very existence. Just as the rainbow was God’s sign in the heavens that never again would the world be destroyed by flood, so the bright little spark in the candle was the mystical sign that after all we were not forgotten !
‘I was thinkin’ of it all the time, meself,’ Anna said.
‘I hate t’ give it up,’ said Jamie, ‘for it’s been a more sauncy comfort t’ me than I ever let on! ’
While it was yet dark I was awakened by the sound of hammering in the bedroom. As I listened the town clock struck three. I dared not move, of course, but next morning the secret came out.
Together they had stayed up all night and mastered, with mutual forbearance and with a good deal of childish glee, the mysterious mechanism of our first lamp. As soon as it was ‘dacently’ permissible, the family gathered around and exulted in the accomplished fact. There it hung, suspended on a temporary nail, awaiting full introduction to its permanent abiding place over the workbench.
Next night we were bathed in glory. The lamp was a new social status. Never had we had so many visitors; they filled the house, they peered in the window, they wondered how we got it and what we should get next! Jamie was content. Anna was triumphant. She took entire charge of it, but many a time for years afterward she would turn the lamp out after his work was done and light the candle in her sconce in the corner. Jamie would smile knowingly. It was for his comfort as much as her own!