Dubliners by James Joyce
The Sisters

Dublin The Sisters
An Encounter
After the Race
Two Gallants
The Boarding House
A Little Cloud
A Painful Case
Ivy Day in the Committee Room
A Mother
The Dead

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[1]        THE SISTERS
[3]        THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.
[4]        Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and
[5]        studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had
[6]        found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was
[7]        dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the
[8]        darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head
[9]        of a corpse. He had often said to me: "I am not long for this
[10]       world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were
[11]       true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to
[12]       myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my
[13]       ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in
[14]       the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some
[15]       maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed
[16]       to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
[18]       Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came
[19]       downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout
[20]       he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:
[22]       "No, I wouldn't say he was exactly... but there was something
[23]       queer... there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my
[24]       opinion...."
[26]       He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his
[27]       mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be
[28]       rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew
[29]       tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.
[31]       "I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of
[32]       those ... peculiar cases .... But it's hard to say...."
[34]       He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My
[35]       uncle saw me staring and said to me:
[37]       "Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."
[39]       "Who?" said I.
[41]       "Father Flynn."
[43]       "Is he dead?"
[45]       "Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."
[47]       I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the
[48]       news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.
[50]       "The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him
[51]       a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."
[53]       "God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.
[55]       Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady
[56]       black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by
[57]       looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat
[58]       rudely into the grate.
[60]       "I wouldn't like children of mine," he said, "to have too much to
[61]       say to a man like that."
[63]       "How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?" asked my aunt.
[65]       "What I mean is," said old Cotter, "it's bad for children. My idea is:
[66]       let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age
[67]       and not be... Am I right, Jack?"
[69]       "That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his
[70]       corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there:
[71]       take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life
[72]       I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that's what stands to me
[73]       now. Education is all very fine and large.... Mr. Cotter might take a
[74]       pick of that leg mutton," he added to my aunt.
[76]       "No, no, not for me," said old Cotter.
[78]       My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.
[80]       "But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr. Cotter?" she
[81]       asked.
[83]       "It's bad for children," said old Cotter, "because their mind are so
[84]       impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it
[85]       has an effect...."
[87]       I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance
[88]       to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!
[90]       It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter
[91]       for alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning
[92]       from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined
[93]       that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the
[94]       blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey
[95]       face still followed me. It murmured, and I understood that it
[96]       desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some
[97]       pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for
[98]       me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I
[99]       wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so
[100]      moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of
[101]      paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the
[102]      simoniac of his sin.
[104]      The next morning after breakfast I went down to look at the little
[105]      house in Great Britain Street. It was an unassuming shop,
[106]      registered under the vague name of Drapery . The drapery
[107]      consisted mainly of children's bootees and umbrellas; and on
[108]      ordinary days a notice used to hang in the window, saying:
[109]      Umbrellas Re-covered . No notice was visible now for the shutters
[110]      were up. A crape bouquet was tied to the doorknocker with ribbon.
[111]      Two poor women and a telegram boy were reading the card pinned
[112]      on the crape. I also approached and read:
[114]      July 1st, 1895
[115]      The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine's Church,
[116]      Meath Street), aged sixty-five years.
[117]      R. I. P.
[119]      The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead and I was
[120]      disturbed to find myself at check. Had he not been dead I would
[121]      have gone into the little dark room behind the shop to find him
[122]      sitting in his arm-chair by the fire, nearly smothered in his
[123]      great-coat. Perhaps my aunt would have given me a packet of High
[124]      Toast for him and this present would have roused him from his
[125]      stupefied doze. It was always I who emptied the packet into his
[126]      black snuff-box for his hands trembled too much to allow him to
[127]      do this without spilling half the snuff about the floor. Even as he
[128]      raised his large trembling hand to his nose little clouds of smoke
[129]      dribbled through his fingers over the front of his coat. It may have
[130]      been these constant showers of snuff which gave his ancient
[131]      priestly garments their green faded look for the red handkerchief,
[132]      blackened, as it always was, with the snuff-stains of a week, with
[133]      which he tried to brush away the fallen grains, was quite
[134]      inefficacious.
[136]      I wished to go in and look at him but I had not the courage to
[137]      knock. I walked away slowly along the sunny side of the street,
[138]      reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows as I
[139]      went. I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a
[140]      mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a
[141]      sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his
[142]      death. I wondered at this for, as my uncle had said the night
[143]      before, he had taught me a great deal. He had studied in the Irish
[144]      college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin
[145]      properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about
[146]      Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of
[147]      the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments
[148]      worn by the priest. Sometimes he had amused himself by putting
[149]      difficult questions to me, asking me what one should do in certain
[150]      circumstances or whether such and such sins were mortal or venial
[151]      or only imperfections. His questions showed me how complex and
[152]      mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had
[153]      always regarded as the simplest acts. The duties of the priest
[154]      towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional
[155]      seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever
[156]      found in himself the courage to undertake them; and I was not
[157]      surprised when he told me that the fathers of the Church had
[158]      written books as thick as the Post Office Directory and as closely
[159]      printed as the law notices in the newspaper, elucidating all these
[160]      intricate questions. Often when I thought of this I could make no
[161]      answer or only a very foolish and halting one upon which he used
[162]      to smile and nod his head twice or thrice. Sometimes he used to
[163]      put me through the responses of the Mass which he had made me
[164]      learn by heart; and, as I pattered, he used to smile pensively and
[165]      nod his head, now and then pushing huge pinches of snuff up each
[166]      nostril alternately. When he smiled he used to uncover his big
[167]      discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip--a habit
[168]      which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our
[169]      acquaintance before I knew him well.
[171]      As I walked along in the sun I remembered old Cotter's words and
[172]      tried to remember what had happened afterwards in the dream. I
[173]      remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging
[174]      lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in
[175]      some land where the customs were strange--in Persia, I thought....
[176]      But I could not remember the end of the dream.
[178]      In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of
[179]      mourning. It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses
[180]      that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of
[181]      clouds. Nannie received us in the hall; and, as it would have been
[182]      unseemly to have shouted at her, my aunt shook hands with her for
[183]      all. The old woman pointed upwards interrogatively and, on my
[184]      aunt's nodding, proceeded to toil up the narrow staircase before us,
[185]      her bowed head being scarcely above the level of the banister-rail.
[186]      At the first landing she stopped and beckoned us forward
[187]      encouragingly towards the open door of the dead-room. My aunt
[188]      went in and the old woman, seeing that I hesitated to enter, began
[189]      to beckon to me again repeatedly with her hand.
[191]      I went in on tiptoe. The room through the lace end of the blind was
[192]      suffused with dusky golden light amid which the candles looked
[193]      like pale thin flames. He had been coffined. Nannie gave the lead
[194]      and we three knelt down at the foot of the bed. I pretended to pray
[195]      but I could not gather my thoughts because the old woman's
[196]      mutterings distracted me. I noticed how clumsily her skirt was
[197]      hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were
[198]      trodden down all to one side. The fancy came to me that the old
[199]      priest was smiling as he lay there in his coffin.
[201]      But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I saw
[202]      that he was not smiling. There he lay, solemn and copious, vested
[203]      as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice. His face
[204]      was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous
[205]      nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur. There was a heavy odour
[206]      in the room--the flowers.
[208]      We crossed ourselves and came away. In the little room downstairs
[209]      we found Eliza seated in his arm-chair in state. I groped my way
[210]      towards my usual chair in the corner while Nannie went to the
[211]      sideboard and brought out a decanter of sherry and some
[212]      wine-glasses. She set these on the table and invited us to take a
[213]      little glass of wine. Then, at her sister's bidding, she filled out the
[214]      sherry into the glasses and passed them to us. She pressed me to
[215]      take some cream crackers also but I declined because I thought I
[216]      would make too much noise eating them. She seemed to be
[217]      somewhat disappointed at my refusal and went over quietly to the
[218]      sofa where she sat down behind her sister. No one spoke: we all
[219]      gazed at the empty fireplace.
[221]      My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:
[223]      "Ah, well, he's gone to a better world."
[225]      Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered
[226]      the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.
[228]      "Did he... peacefully?" she asked.
[230]      "Oh, quite peacefully, ma'am," said Eliza. "You couldn't tell when
[231]      the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be
[232]      praised."
[234]      "And everything...?"
[236]      "Father O'Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and
[237]      prepared him and all."
[239]      "He knew then?"
[241]      "He was quite resigned."
[243]      "He looks quite resigned," said my aunt.
[245]      "That's what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he
[246]      just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and
[247]      resigned. No one would think he'd make such a beautiful corpse."
[249]      "Yes, indeed," said my aunt.
[251]      She sipped a little more from her glass and said:
[253]      "Well, Miss Flynn, at any rate it must be a great comfort for you to
[254]      know that you did all you could for him. You were both very kind
[255]      to him, I must say."
[257]      Eliza smoothed her dress over her knees.
[259]      "Ah, poor James!" she said. "God knows we done all we could, as
[260]      poor as we are--we wouldn't see him want anything while he was
[261]      in it."
[263]      Nannie had leaned her head against the sofa-pillow and seemed
[264]      about to fall asleep.
[266]      "There's poor Nannie," said Eliza, looking at her, "she's wore out.
[267]      All the work we had, she and me, getting in the woman to wash
[268]      him and then laying him out and then the coffin and then arranging
[269]      about the Mass in the chapel. Only for Father O'Rourke I don't
[270]      know what we'd done at all. It was him brought us all them flowers
[271]      and them two candlesticks out of the chapel and wrote out the
[272]      notice for the Freeman's General and took charge of all the papers
[273]      for the cemetery and poor James's insurance."
[275]      "Wasn't that good of him?" said my aunt
[277]      Eliza closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.
[279]      "Ah, there's no friends like the old friends," she said, "when all is
[280]      said and done, no friends that a body can trust."
[282]      "Indeed, that's true," said my aunt. "And I'm sure now that he's
[283]      gone to his eternal reward he won't forget you and all your
[284]      kindness to him."
[286]      "Ah, poor James!" said Eliza. "He was no great trouble to us. You
[287]      wouldn't hear him in the house any more than now. Still, I know
[288]      he's gone and all to that...."
[290]      "It's when it's all over that you'll miss him," said my aunt.
[292]      "I know that," said Eliza. "I won't be bringing him in his cup of
[293]      beef-tea any me, nor you, ma'am, sending him his snuff. Ah, poor
[294]      James!"
[296]      She stopped, as if she were communing with the past and then said
[297]      shrewdly:
[299]      "Mind you, I noticed there was something queer coming over him
[300]      latterly. Whenever I'd bring in his soup to him there I'd find him
[301]      with his breviary fallen to the floor, lying back in the chair and his
[302]      mouth open."
[304]      She laid a finger against her nose and frowned: then she continued:
[306]      "But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer was
[307]      over he'd go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old house
[308]      again where we were all born down in Irishtown and take me and
[309]      Nannie with him. If we could only get one of them new-fangled
[310]      carriages that makes no noise that Father O'Rourke told him about,
[311]      them with the rheumatic wheels, for the day cheap--he said, at
[312]      Johnny Rush's over the way there and drive out the three of us
[313]      together of a Sunday evening. He had his mind set on that.... Poor
[314]      James!"
[316]      "The Lord have mercy on his soul!" said my aunt.
[318]      Eliza took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. Then
[319]      she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the empty grate
[320]      for some time without speaking.
[322]      "He was too scrupulous always," she said. "The duties of the
[323]      priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might
[324]      say, crossed."
[326]      "Yes," said my aunt. "He was a disappointed man. You could see
[327]      that."
[329]      A silence took possession of the little room and, under cover of it,
[330]      I approached the table and tasted my sherry and then returned
[331]      quietly to my chair in the comer. Eliza seemed to have fallen into a
[332]      deep revery. We waited respectfully for her to break the silence:
[333]      and after a long pause she said slowly:
[335]      "It was that chalice he broke.... That was the beginning of it. Of
[336]      course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean.
[337]      But still.... They say it was the boy's fault. But poor James was so
[338]      nervous, God be merciful to him!"
[340]      "And was that it?" said my aunt. "I heard something...."
[342]      Eliza nodded.
[344]      "That affected his mind," she said. "After that he began to mope by
[345]      himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself. So one
[346]      night he was wanted for to go on a call and they couldn't find him
[347]      anywhere. They looked high up and low down; and still they
[348]      couldn't see a sight of him anywhere. So then the clerk suggested
[349]      to try the chapel. So then they got the keys and opened the chapel
[350]      and the clerk and Father O'Rourke and another priest that was
[351]      there brought in a light for to look for him.... And what do you
[352]      think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his
[353]      confession-box, wide- awake and laughing-like softly to himself?"
[355]      She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was
[356]      no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still
[357]      in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an
[358]      idle chalice on his breast.
[360]      Eliza resumed:
[362]      "Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself.... So then, of course,
[363]      when they saw that, that made them think that there was something
[364]      gone wrong with him...."