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A Widow's Tale and Other Stories by Mrs. Oliphant




With an Introductory Note by J. M. Barrie

William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London MDCCCXCVIII


I remember well my first meeting with Mrs Oliphant a dozen years ago, how she "ordered" me to Windsor where she was then living (I like to think that it was an order, and obeyed as such by her very loyal subject), and that I was as proud to go, and as nervous, as those must be who make the same journey by command of another lady resident in the same place. I have an odd recollection too of buying my first umbrella for this occasion--for no reason apparently except that I wanted to impress her.

They say she was not tall, but she seemed tremendous to me that day. I find an old letter in which I dwelt on the height of her and her grand manner, so that evidently the umbrella was of little avail. In her presence, I think, those whose manner is of to-day must always have felt suddenly boorish. She belonged to a politer age: you never knew it more surely than when she was putting you at your ease with a graciousness that had something of a command in it. Mrs Oliphant was herself the fine Scots gentlewoman she drew so incomparably in her books, most sympathetic when she unbent and a ramrod if she chose--the _grande dame_ at one moment, almost a girl, it might be, the next (her sense of fun often made her a girl again), she gave you the impression of one who loved to finger beautiful things, and always wore rare caps and fine lace as if they were part of her. She could be almost fearsomely correct, and in the middle of it become audacious (for there was a dash of the Bohemian about her); her likes and dislikes were intense; in talk she was extremely witty without trying to be so (she was often, I think, amused and surprised to hear what she had just said); her eyes were so expressive, and such a humorous gleam leapt into them when you attempted to impress her (with anything more pretentious than an umbrella), that to catch sight of them must often to the grandiloquent have been to come to an abrupt stop; and, more noticeable perhaps than anything else, she was of an intellect so alert that one wondered she ever fell asleep. That was but a first impression, a photograph of externals, little to be read in it of the beautiful soul and most heroic woman who was the real Mrs Oliphant. The last time I saw her, which was shortly before her death, I knew her better. The wit had all gone out of her eyes, though not quite from her talk; her face had grown very sweet and soft, and what had started to be the old laugh often ended pitifully. The two sons who had been so much to her were gone, and for the rest of her days she never forgot it, I think, for the length of a smile. She was less the novelist now than a pathetic figure in a novel. She was as brave as ever, but she had less self-control; and so, I suppose it was, that the more exquisite part of her, which the Scotswoman's reserve had kept hidden, came to the surface and dwelt for that last year in her face, as if to let all those who looked on Mrs Oliphant know what she was before she bade them good-bye.

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