The Sisters by James Joyce
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 opinion...."
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.
"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 asked.
"It's bad for children," said old Cotter, "because their minds are so
impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an
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
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 door-knocker 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
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 inefficacious.
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 shopwindows 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
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 blessed 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 praised."
"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
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
"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 have 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
"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 more, nor you, ma'am, sending him his snuff. Ah, poor James!"
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 James!"
"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
"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 that."
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...."
"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.
"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