The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Reed in the River

by the writer of "The Man With the Seven Hearts."
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 345-348

She lay, pale and thin, upon a couch, as she had lain for twenty years and more. Once she had been a strong and fearless girl, and again a strong and fearless wife, and her sons were strong and fearless as she. But a sickness, whose touch was inscrutable and whose breath was death to most men, had passed over her and fought with her. And her spirit, to which the sickness had laid siege also, held out against the enemy, and routed him, and he betook himself to others, whom he slew body and soul.

"What am I like?" she said to her tall son. "I am, as your German story says, a reed in the river."

"And I?" he answered. "What am I, mother?"

"You are the oak," she said, "my oak, my strong, my firm-set oak."

So they talked in the evening, and laughed over the names. And when he had shaken up her pillows, and had left his kiss upon her face to bring good dreams to her, he went to his study and his books; and, in turning over a book of Märchen [German fairy tales] to find a legend with which to illustrate an argument, his eye caught the words "The Reed in the River."

"That is what she meant," he said. "What is it all about?" And he lay back in an arm-chair and read.

"She rose, frail and graceful, in a long reach of the river. The willows that thickly lined the bank, the oak that threw his shadow magnificently from the towing-path, watched her rise, a single reed in the river. 'Only a reed,' said they. And the reed grew.

"Rain and snow bowed her tall form, but they left her ever the same. In the summer-time the flat-leaved water lilies gathered round her, and owned her as their queen. And her life, so weak yet so sure, made the willows and the oak her friends. The willows spoke to her of their fifty years of growth; the oak of his battles with the winter wind in the watches of the night, when she lay along the tops of the wavelets; and she in return sang to them in the breeze, and laughed back on them in the sunshine. And they grew to reverence her; for their lord, the river, on whose banks they lived, had taken her to his arms. From him, the everlasting river, the king whose silver path lay graven for ever in the certain earth, she learnt the meaning of the mystery of life; and she whispered it to them.

"Then came a mighty hurricane. Trees bent or broke to the storm; the cattle were blown about the field; sheds and houses were overset; and the oak that had weathered all the other winds strained and creaked and cracked and crashed over the river. The branches splashed and hissed in the water, and, swaying up and down beneath the surface, broke the frail reed and she was swept away.

"And the willow, as he dropped his thin train in the stream, lamented her; and the lilies that bloomed again in summer time in the place where her graceful stalk had swung, lamented her; and the birds that had caroled to her bright laughter lamented her; the sky that had gazed on her bravery, the sun that had shone on her frailty, the wind that had worried her, the rain that had beaten her, the stream that had fed her and tended her, all lamented her; and their world was the poorer for her loss that day."

"It is my mother," he said.

The likeness was but partly true; but he fastened on it, and left his argument unillustrated. Clocks ticked and tinkled through the silent house as he sat on and thought.

She had taught him his letters, and held him on his pony; she had watched him as he swam his first yard and leaped his first fence; she had given him his prayer-book and his little boxing-gloves; she had held his Latin dictionary, and they had together discussed which words they must look for and which they might guess at. His earliest hymn, and his first fairy tale; his Noah's ark, his tops, his whips, his Irish terrier; his prizes for the hurdle race and for Greek; his tempers and penitences, his successes and tears, were all so mingled with her and she with them that he scarcely knew where her life ended and where his began. In the shadow of her strength his life had been fostered; and when she was laid helpless for ever on her couch, and the strong boy's head bent over her at morning and evening, or his dear arms carried her from bed-room to boudoir, in the shadow of her strength he grew to manhood. His bat was her gift; her reading table his.

"What a pity for her and for the rest," her friends would sometimes say, when they were denied her because she lay in extreme pain, "What a pity for her and for the rest of them that she did not die." But in the household neither her husband, whose political career needed a wife to lead a social throng, nor the servants, who were kept always busy waiting on her, ever said or thought, or dreamed of such a thing. The light that shone through her and round her face made her room their fortress, and with her there, they could defy the littlenesses of their lives.

[The reader thinks this is a rhapsody. "No such woman ever lived," says he, "in sickness or in health; it is a man's notion of what a woman might be; a vain ideal; a Pygmalion's bride never kindled into life."
If he is right, history and biography are wrong; the memories of thousands have deceived them; and scores and thousands of private letters, too sacred to be printed, are sheets of lies.
I have in one of my note-books a list of names of women which I have come across in the reading of many histories. If this list could be re-edited by the fingers of Time, who writes with invisible but indelible pencil the lives of women unknown to biographical dictionaries, the pages in this magazine would not be many enough to contain a tenth even of the initials of those who have been as this woman was; not though Mr. Pickering should print the letters in type which you could not read without taking it to the window-seat.]

In the heyday of his life, when all her hopes for him had burst into bloom, and the beauty of the blossom had pictured to her the coming fruit, he was caught by the laws of iron that follow the chances of gossamer, and the life within was crushed.

They brought him home, her hope, her joy, and laid him near her. She watched him from her couch as he lay unconscious and still.

And Death, when he came to calm the numbed buzzing in the brain, found them lying hand in hand. And when he had called him, her life flickered and wavered and shone so very dim that the shadow, blowing at it never so gently, left them together in the darkness.

The two were standing in front of the gates at the Ending of the Way. And when the keeper of the gates opened to them he gave them a paper, on which was written the name of the road they should take and the place they should make for. The name of the road I do not know, but the place was "the Home where strong souls wait."

"Mother," said he, "I should not have been here but for you."

"Nay, my son," she answered, "have we not come together all the way?"

Proofread by Stephanie H. 2008