home | authors | books | about

Home -> James Joyce -> Dubliners -> The Sisters

Dubliners - The Sisters

1. The Sisters

2. An Encounter

3. Araby

4. Eveline

5. After the Race

6. Two Gallants

7. The Boarding House

8. A Little Cloud

9. Counterparts

10. Clay

11. A Painful Case

12. Ivy Day in the Committee Room

13. A Mother

14. Grace

15. The Dead

16. The Dead - continue


THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.
Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and
studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had
found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was
dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the
darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head
of a corpse. He had often said to me: "I am not long for this
world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were
true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to
myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my
ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in
the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some
maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed
to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came
downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout
he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly... but there was something
queer... there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his
mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be
rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew
tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

"I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of
those ... peculiar cases .... But it's hard to say...."

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My
uncle saw me staring and said to me:

"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the
news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him
a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."

"God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady
black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by
looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat
rudely into the grate.

"I wouldn't like children of mine," he said, "to have too much to
say to a man like that."

"How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?" asked my aunt.

"What I mean is," said old Cotter, "it's bad for children. My idea is:
let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age
and not be... Am I right, Jack?"

"That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his
corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there:
take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life
I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that's what stands to me
now. Education is all very fine and large.... Mr. Cotter might take a
pick of that leg mutton," he added to my aunt.

"No, no, not for me," said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.

"But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr. Cotter?" she

"It's bad for children," said old Cotter, "because their mind are so
impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it
has an effect...."

I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance
to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!

It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter
for alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning
from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined
that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the
blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey
face still followed me. It murmured, and I understood that it
desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some
pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for
me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I
wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so
moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of
paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the
simoniac of his sin.

The next morning after breakfast I went down to look at the little
house in Great Britain Street. It was an unassuming shop,
registered under the vague name of Drapery . The drapery
consisted mainly of children's bootees and umbrellas; and on
ordinary days a notice used to hang in the window, saying:
Umbrellas Re-covered . No notice was visible now for the shutters
were up. A crape bouquet was tied to the doorknocker with ribbon.
Two poor women and a telegram boy were reading the card pinned
on the crape. I also approached and read:

July 1st, 1895
The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine's Church,
Meath Street), aged sixty-five years.
R. I. P.

The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead and I was
disturbed to find myself at check. Had he not been dead I would
have gone into the little dark room behind the shop to find him
sitting in his arm-chair by the fire, nearly smothered in his
great-coat. Perhaps my aunt would have given me a packet of High
Toast for him and this present would have roused him from his
stupefied doze. It was always I who emptied the packet into his
black snuff-box for his hands trembled too much to allow him to
do this without spilling half the snuff about the floor. Even as he
raised his large trembling hand to his nose little clouds of smoke
dribbled through his fingers over the front of his coat. It may have
been these constant showers of snuff which gave his ancient
priestly garments their green faded look for the red handkerchief,
blackened, as it always was, with the snuff-stains of a week, with
which he tried to brush away the fallen grains, was quite

I wished to go in and look at him but I had not the courage to
knock. I walked away slowly along the sunny side of the street,
reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows as I
went. I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a
mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a
sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his
death. I wondered at this for, as my uncle had said the night
before, he had taught me a great deal. He had studied in the Irish
college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin
properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about
Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of
the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments
worn by the priest. Sometimes he had amused himself by putting
difficult questions to me, asking me what one should do in certain
circumstances or whether such and such sins were mortal or venial
or only imperfections. His questions showed me how complex and
mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had
always regarded as the simplest acts. The duties of the priest
towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional
seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever
found in himself the courage to undertake them; and I was not
surprised when he told me that the fathers of the Church had
written books as thick as the Post Office Directory and as closely
printed as the law notices in the newspaper, elucidating all these
intricate questions. Often when I thought of this I could make no
answer or only a very foolish and halting one upon which he used
to smile and nod his head twice or thrice. Sometimes he used to
put me through the responses of the Mass which he had made me
learn by heart; and, as I pattered, he used to smile pensively and
nod his head, now and then pushing huge pinches of snuff up each
nostril alternately. When he smiled he used to uncover his big
discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip--a habit
which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our
acquaintance before I knew him well.

As I walked along in the sun I remembered old Cotter's words and
tried to remember what had happened afterwards in the dream. I
remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging
lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in
some land where the customs were strange--in Persia, I thought....
But I could not remember the end of the dream.

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of
mourning. It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses
that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of
clouds. Nannie received us in the hall; and, as it would have been
unseemly to have shouted at her, my aunt shook hands with her for
all. The old woman pointed upwards interrogatively and, on my
aunt's nodding, proceeded to toil up the narrow staircase before us,
her bowed head being scarcely above the level of the banister-rail.
At the first landing she stopped and beckoned us forward
encouragingly towards the open door of the dead-room. My aunt
went in and the old woman, seeing that I hesitated to enter, began
to beckon to me again repeatedly with her hand.

I went in on tiptoe. The room through the lace end of the blind was
suffused with dusky golden light amid which the candles looked
like pale thin flames. He had been coffined. Nannie gave the lead
and we three knelt down at the foot of the bed. I pretended to pray
but I could not gather my thoughts because the old woman's
mutterings distracted me. I noticed how clumsily her skirt was
hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were
trodden down all to one side. The fancy came to me that the old
priest was smiling as he lay there in his coffin.

But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I saw
that he was not smiling. There he lay, solemn and copious, vested
as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice. His face
was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous
nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur. There was a heavy odour
in the room--the flowers.

We crossed ourselves and came away. In the little room downstairs
we found Eliza seated in his arm-chair in state. I groped my way
towards my usual chair in the corner while Nannie went to the
sideboard and brought out a decanter of sherry and some
wine-glasses. She set these on the table and invited us to take a
little glass of wine. Then, at her sister's bidding, she filled out the
sherry into the glasses and passed them to us. She pressed me to
take some cream crackers also but I declined because I thought I
would make too much noise eating them. She seemed to be
somewhat disappointed at my refusal and went over quietly to the
sofa where she sat down behind her sister. No one spoke: we all
gazed at the empty fireplace.

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

"Ah, well, he's gone to a better world."

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered
the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

"Did he... peacefully?" she asked.

"Oh, quite peacefully, ma'am," said Eliza. "You couldn't tell when
the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be

"And everything...?"

"Father O'Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and
prepared him and all."

"He knew then?"

"He was quite resigned."

"He looks quite resigned," said my aunt.

"That's what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he
just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and
resigned. No one would think he'd make such a beautiful corpse."

"Yes, indeed," said my aunt.

She sipped a little more from her glass and said:

"Well, Miss Flynn, at any rate it must be a great comfort for you to
know that you did all you could for him. You were both very kind
to him, I must say."

Eliza smoothed her dress over her knees.

"Ah, poor James!" she said. "God knows we done all we could, as
poor as we are--we wouldn't see him want anything while he was
in it."

Nannie had leaned her head against the sofa-pillow and seemed
about to fall asleep.

"There's poor Nannie," said Eliza, looking at her, "she's wore out.
All the work we had, she and me, getting in the woman to wash
him and then laying him out and then the coffin and then arranging
about the Mass in the chapel. Only for Father O'Rourke I don't
know what we'd done at all. It was him brought us all them flowers
and them two candlesticks out of the chapel and wrote out the
notice for the Freeman's General and took charge of all the papers
for the cemetery and poor James's insurance."

"Wasn't that good of him?" said my aunt

Eliza closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.

"Ah, there's no friends like the old friends," she said, "when all is
said and done, no friends that a body can trust."

"Indeed, that's true," said my aunt. "And I'm sure now that he's
gone to his eternal reward he won't forget you and all your
kindness to him."

"Ah, poor James!" said Eliza. "He was no great trouble to us. You
wouldn't hear him in the house any more than now. Still, I know
he's gone and all to that...."

"It's when it's all over that you'll miss him," said my aunt.

"I know that," said Eliza. "I won't be bringing him in his cup of
beef-tea any me, nor you, ma'am, sending him his snuff. Ah, poor

She stopped, as if she were communing with the past and then said

"Mind you, I noticed there was something queer coming over him
latterly. Whenever I'd bring in his soup to him there I'd find him
with his breviary fallen to the floor, lying back in the chair and his
mouth open."

She laid a finger against her nose and frowned: then she continued:

"But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer was
over he'd go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old house
again where we were all born down in Irishtown and take me and
Nannie with him. If we could only get one of them new-fangled
carriages that makes no noise that Father O'Rourke told him about,
them with the rheumatic wheels, for the day cheap--he said, at
Johnny Rush's over the way there and drive out the three of us
together of a Sunday evening. He had his mind set on that.... Poor

"The Lord have mercy on his soul!" said my aunt.

Eliza took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. Then
she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the empty grate
for some time without speaking.

"He was too scrupulous always," she said. "The duties of the
priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might
say, crossed."

"Yes," said my aunt. "He was a disappointed man. You could see

A silence took possession of the little room and, under cover of it,
I approached the table and tasted my sherry and then returned
quietly to my chair in the comer. Eliza seemed to have fallen into a
deep revery. We waited respectfully for her to break the silence:
and after a long pause she said slowly:

"It was that chalice he broke.... That was the beginning of it. Of
course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean.
But still.... They say it was the boy's fault. But poor James was so
nervous, God be merciful to him!"

"And was that it?" said my aunt. "I heard something...."

Eliza nodded.

"That affected his mind," she said. "After that he began to mope by
himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself. So one
night he was wanted for to go on a call and they couldn't find him
anywhere. They looked high up and low down; and still they
couldn't see a sight of him anywhere. So then the clerk suggested
to try the chapel. So then they got the keys and opened the chapel
and the clerk and Father O'Rourke and another priest that was
there brought in a light for to look for him.... And what do you
think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his
confession-box, wide- awake and laughing-like softly to himself?"

She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was
no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still
in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an
idle chalice on his breast.

Eliza resumed:

"Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself.... So then, of course,
when they saw that, that made them think that there was something
gone wrong with him...."

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary