Thanks to Project Gutenberg for this gem of an essay.
THE PENSION OF THE PATCHWORK QUILT
E. Temple Thurston, Published February 1911
So much more than you would ever dream lies hidden behind the beauty of “The Blue Bird,” by Maurice Maeterlinck. Beauty may be the first of its qualities. By the same token, beauty may be the last. But in the midst, in the heart of it, there is set a deep well of truth—fathomless almost—one of those natural wells which God, with His omnipotent disregard of limitations, has sunk into the heart of the world.
That utter annihilation of death must be confusion to many when expressed in terms of St. Joseph lilies. Ninety per cent. of people will be likely to say, “How pretty!” That is the worst of it. They ought to be feeling, “How true!”
Yet what is a man to do? He can only express the immortality that he knows in terms of the material things he sees. St. Joseph lilies are as good as, if not better than anything else. But they might as well have been artichokes, which come up every year. Artichokes would have done just as well, only that people who object to artichokes would have said, “How silly!”
No one can object to St. Joseph lilies. Yet, whatever they are, you will never be able to persuade the world to see the immortal truth behind the mortal and material fact.
It was the chance of circumstance which gave me an example of that amazing truth that old people, when they have passed away, are given life whenever the young people think of them. To the hundreds and thousands who have been to see “The Blue Bird” there are hundreds and thousands to say, “How charming that idea is—the old people coming to life again whenever any one thinks of them!”
“And how amazingly true,” said I to one who had made the remark to me.
The lady looked at me as at one who has made a needless jest and then she laughed. Being a lady, she was polite.
But I hated that politeness. I hated the laugh which expressed it. If chance should make her eye to fall upon this page, she will see how I hated it. She will see also how earnestly I had meant what I said. For I have found a proof of the truth. I know now that the old people live. What is more, they know it too. When it comes that they pass that Rubicon which takes them into the shadow of those portals beneath which all the old people must wait until the Great Gates are opened—when once they near the three-score years and ten—then they know. But they may not speak. They may not say they know. They can only hint.
It was that an old lady hinted to me. Oh, such a broad hint it was! And that is how I know.
She was close on seventy. Another summer, another winter, and yet another spring, would see her three-score years and ten. The pension of the country would be given her then and this great ambition had leapt into the heart of her:
“I want to leave off work then, sir,” she said and a smile parted her thin, wrinkled lips, lit two fires in her eyes, making her whole face sparkle. “I want to leave off work then, sir, and I want to take a little cottage. I only work now so that my sons shan’t have the expense of keeping me. They’ve got expenses enough of their own.” Then her little brown eyes, like beads in the deep hollows, took into them a tender look as she thought of the trials and troubles which they had to bear.
“Will you ever be able to get a cottage and keep yourself alive on five shillings a week?” I asked.
She set her little mouth. She was a wee, tiny creature, shriveled with age. Everything about her was little and crumpled and old.
“It doesn’t need much to keep me alive now, sir,” she said. “The cottage I can get for half a crown a week; and, of course, my sons are real good boys—they send me a little now and then.”
I gazed at her—at her wee, withered body, wasted away to nothing in tireless energy.
“You know you won’t care to leave off work when it comes to the time,” said I; “you’ll hate to have nothing to do.”
She looked back at me with a cunning twinkle in her bright brown eyes. As if she were fool enough to think that life would be bearable with nothing to do! As if she had ever dreamed that the hands could be idle while the heart was beating! As if she did not know that each must labour until death stilled them both!
“I shan’t have nothing to do, sir,” she said when she had said it already with her eyes. “Why, it’s just the time I’ve been looking for. I’m too busy now.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Make a patchwork quilt.”
“A patchwork quilt?”
“So that I can leave something behind me for people to remember me when I’m gone.”
She said it quite cheerfully, quite happily. Her bright eyes glistened like a wink of light in an old brown china tea-pot. She said it, too, in that half-reserved way as though there were more to tell, but she was not allowed even to whisper it.
Of course, there was more to tell! She never would be gone! Not really gone! Every time you thought of her, the light of the other life would start back into her eyes, the wrinkled lips would smile again. She would never be really gone! And this was a hint—just a hint to let me at least, for one, make sure about it.
“Then every night they go to bed,” said I, “and pull the patchwork quilt tight round them——”
“Yes—and every time they throw it off in the morning——” said she.
“They’ll think of you?”
“They’ll think of me,” and she chuckled like a little child to think how clever it was of her.
“Supposing,” said I, suddenly, in a whisper as the thought occurred to me—“supposing you could do without any assistance from your boys——”
“I wish I could,” she said; “p’raps I can.”
“You wait and see,” said I.
Her seventieth birthday came round, and the evening before I posted to her my little present. I made her my pensioner as long as she lives, and on the twentieth day of each month she receives her tiny portion, and on the twenty-first day of that month I get back in return a wee bunch of flowers tied with red Angola wool.
“In payment of the Pension of the Patchwork Quilt,” I write, just on a slip of paper; then off it goes every month. And as I drop it in the letterbox, I can see her surrounded with all sorts of materials in divers colours. I can hear the scratching of her needle as she sews them together. I can picture her little eyes bent eagerly upon the stitches for fear it might not be done in time.
And I take her gentle hint.
From the book The Patchwork Papers