Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
"WHAT is in the wind this dark night? Six Newhaven boats and twenty boys and hobbledehoys, hired by the Johnstones at half a crown each for a night's job."
"What is it for?"
"I think it is a smuggling lay," suggested Flucker, "but we shall know all in good time."
"Smuggling!" Their countenances fell; they had hoped for something more nearly approaching the illegal.
"Maybe she has fand the herrin'," said a ten-year-old.
"Haw! haw! haw!" went the others. "She find the herrin', when there's five hundred fishermen after them baith sides the Firrth."
The youngster was discomfited.
In fact the expedition bore no signs of fishing.
The six boats sailed at sundown, led by Flucker. He brought to on the south side of Inch Keith, and nothing happened for about an hour.
Then such boys as were awake saw two great eyes of light coming up from Granton; rattle went the chain cable, and Lord Ipsden's cutter swung at anchor in four fathom water.
A thousand questions to Flucker.
A single puff of tobacco-smoke was his answer.
And now crept up a single eye of light from Leith; she came among the boats; the boys recognized a crazy old cutter from Leith harbor, with Christie Johnstone on board.
"What is that brown heap on her deck?"
"A mountain of nets — fifty stout herring-nets."
Tunc manifesta fides.
A yell burst from all the boys.
"He's gaun to tak us to Dunbar."
"Half a crown! ye're no blate."
Christie ordered the boats alongside her cutter, and five nets were dropped into each boat, six into Flucker's.
The depth of the water was given them, and they were instructed to shoot their nets so as to keep a fathom and a half above the rocky bottom.
A herring net is simply a wall of meshes twelve feet deep, fifty feet long; it sinks to a vertical position by the weight of net twine, and is kept from sinking to the bottom of the sea by bladders or corks. These nets are tied to one another, and paid out at the stern of the boat. Boat and nets drift with the tide; if, therefore, the nets touched the rocks they would be torn to pieces, and the fisherman ruined.
And this saves the herring — that fish lies hours and hours at the very bottom of the sea like a stone, and the poor fisherman shall drive with his nets a yard or two over a square mile of fish, and not catch a herring tail; on the other hand, if they rise to play for five minutes, in that five minutes they shall fill seven hundred boats.
At nine o'clock all the boats had shot their nets, and Christie went alongside his lordship's cutter; he asked her many questions about herring fishery, to which she gave clear answers, derived from her father, who had always been what the fishermen call a lucky fisherman; that is, he had opened his eyes and judged for himself.
Lord Ipsden then gave her blue lights to distribute among the boats, that the first which caught herring might signal all hands.
This was done, and all was expectation. Eleven o'clock came — no signal from any boat.
Christie became anxious. At last she went round to the boats; found the boys all asleep except the baddish boy; waked them up, and made them all haul in their first net. The nets came in as black as ink, no sign of a herring.
There was but one opinion; there was no herring at Inch Keith; they had not been there this seven years.
At last, Flucker, to whom she came in turn, told her he was going into two fathom water, where he would let out the bladders and drop the nets on their cursed backs.
A strong remonstrance was made by Christie, but the baddish boy insisted that he had an equal right in all her nets, and, setting his sail, he ran into shoal water.
Christie began to be sorrowful; instead of making money, she was going to throw it away, and the ne'er-do-weel Flucker would tear six nets from the ropes.
Flucker hauled down his sail, and unstepped his mast in two fathom water; but he was not such a fool as to risk his six nets; he devoted one to his experiment, and did it well; he let out his bladder line a fathom, so that one half his net would literally be higgledy-piggledy with the rocks, unless the fish were there en masse.
No long time was required.
In five minutes he began to haul in the net; first, the boys hauled in the rope, and then the net began to approach the surface. Flucker looked anxiously down, the other lads incredulously; suddenly they all gave a yell of triumph — an appearance of silver and lightning mixed had glanced up from the bottom; in came the first two yards of the net — there were three herrings in it. These three proved Flucker's point as well as three million.
They hauled in the net. Before they had a quarter of it in, the net came up to the surface, and the sea was alive with molten silver. The upper half of the net was empty, but the lower half was one solid mass of fish.
The boys could not find a mesh, they had nothing to handle but fish.
At this moment the easternmost boat showed a blue light.
"The fish are rising," said Flucker, "we'll na risk nae mair nets."
Soon after this a sort of song was heard from the boat that had showed a light. Flucker, who had got his net in, ran down to her, and found, as he suspected, that the boys had not power to draw the weight of fish over the gunwale.
They were singing, as sailors do, that they might all pull together; he gave them two of his crew, and ran down to his own skipper.
The said skipper gave him four men.
Another blue light!
Christie and her crew came a little nearer the boats, and shot twelve nets.
The yachtsmen entered the sport with zeal, so did his lordship.
The boats were all full in a few minutes, and nets still out.
Then Flucker began to fear some of these nets would sink with the weight of fish; for the herring die after a while in a net, and a dead herring sinks.
What was to be done?
They got two boats alongside the cutter, and unloaded them into her as well as they could; but before they could half do this the other boats hailed them.
They came to one of them; the boys were struggling with a thing which no stranger would have dreamed was a net.
Imagine a white sheet, fifty feet long, varnished with red-hot silver. There were twenty barrels in this single net. By dint of fresh hands they got half of her in, and then the meshes began to break; the men leaned over the gunwale, and put their arms round blocks and masses of fish, and so flung them on board; and the codfish and dogfish snapped them almost out of the men's hands like tigers.
At last they came to a net which was a double wall of herring; it had been some time in the water, and many of the fish were dead; they tried their best, but it was impracticable; they laid hold of the solid herring, and when they lifted up a hundred-weight clear of the water, away it all tore, and sank back again.
They were obliged to cut away this net, with twenty pounds sterling in her. They cut away the twine from the head-ropes, and net and fish went to the bottom.
All hands were now about the cutter; Christie's nets were all strong and new; they had been some time in the water; in hauling them up her side, quantities of fish fell out of the net into the water, but there were enough left.
She averaged twelve barrels a net.
Such of the yawls as were not quite full crept between the cutter and the nets, and caught all they wanted.
The projector of this fortunate speculation suddenly announced that she was very sleepy.
Flucker rolled her up in a sail, and she slept the sleep of infancy on board her cutter.
When she awoke it was seven o'clock in the morning, and her cutter was creeping with a smart breeze about two miles an hour, a mile from Newhaven pier.
The yacht had returned to Granton, and the yawls, very low in the water, were creeping along like snails, with both sails set.
The news was in Edinburgh long before they landed. They had been discerned under Inch Keith at the dawn.
And the manner of their creeping along, when there was such a breeze, told the tale at once to the keen, experienced eyes that are sure to be scanning the sea.
Donkey-carts came rattling down from the capital.
Merchants came pelting down to Newhaven pier.
The whole story began to be put together by bits, and comprehended. Old Johnstone's cleverness was recalled to mind.
The few fishermen left at Newhaven were ready to kill themselves.
Their wives were ready to do the same good office for La Johnstone.
Four Irish merchants agreed to work together, and to make a show of competition, the better to keep the price down within bounds.
It was hardly fair, four men against one innocent unguarded female.
But this is a wicked world.
Christie landed, and proceeded to her own house; on the way she was met by Jean Carnie, who debarrassed her of certain wrappers, and a handkerchief she had tied round her head, and informed her she was the pride of Newhaven.
She next met these four little merchants, one after another.
And since we ought to dwell as little as possible upon scenes in which unguarded innocence is exposed to artful conspiracies, we will put a page or two into the brute form of dramatic dialogue, and so sail through it quicker.
1st Merchant. "Where are ye going, Meggie?"
Christie Johnstone. "If onybody asks ye, say ye dinna ken."
1st Mer. "Will ye sell your fish?"
Christie. "Suner than gie them."
1st Mer. "You will be asking fifteen shillin' the cran."
Christie. "And ten to that."
1st Mer. "Good-morning."
2d Mer. "Would he not go over fifteen shillings? Oh, the thief o' the world! — I'll give sixteen."
3d Mer. "But I'll give eighteen."
2d Mer. "More fool you! Take him up, my girl."
Christie. "Twenty-five is my price the day."
3d Mer. "You will keep them till Sunday week and sell their bones."
[Exeunt the three Merchants. Enter 4th Merchant.
4th Mer. "Are your fish sold? I'll give sixteen shillings."
Christie. "I'm seeking twenty-five, an' I'm offered eighteen.
4th Mer. "Take it." [Exit.
Christie. "They hae putten their heads thegither."
Here Flucker came up to her, and told her there was a Leith merchant looking for her. "And, Custy," said he, "there's plenty wind getting up, your fish will be sair hashed; put them off your hands, I rede ye."
Christie. "Ay, lad! Flucker, hide, an' when I play my hand sae, ye'll run in an cry, 'Cirsty, the Irishman will gie ye twenty-two schellin the cran.'"
Flucker. "Ye ken mair than's in the catecheesm, for as releegious as ye are."
The Leith merchant was Mr. Miller, and this is the way he worked.
Miller (in a mellifluous voice). "Are ye no fatigued, my deear?"
Christie (affecting fatigue). "Indeed, sir, and I am."
Miller. "Shall I have the pleasure to deal wi' ye?"
Christie. "If it's your pleasure, sir. I'm seekin' twenty-five schellin."
Miller (pretending not to hear). "As you are a beginner, I must offer fair; twenty schellin you shall have, and that's three shillings above Dunbar."
Christie. "Wad ye even carted herrin with my fish caller fra' the sea? and Dunbar — oh, fine! ye ken there's nae herrin at Dunbar the morn; this is the Dunbar schule that slipped westward. I'm the matirket, ye'll hae to buy o' me or gang to your bed" (here she signaled to Flucker). "I'll no be oot o' mine lang."
Enter Flucker hastily, crying: "Cirsty, the Irishman will gie ye twenty-two schellin."
"I'll no tak it," said Christie.
"They are keen to hae them," said Flucker; and hastily retired, as if to treat further with the small merchants.
On this, Mr. Miller, pretending to make for Leith, said, carelessly, "Twenty-three shillings, or they are not for me."
"Tak the cutter's freight at a hundre' cran, an' I'm no caring," said Christie.
"They are mine!" said Mr. Miller, very sharply. "How much shall I give you the day?"
"Auchty pund, sir, if you please — the lave when you like; I ken ye, Mr. Miller."
While counting her the notes, the purchaser said slyly to her:
"There's more than a hundred cran in the cutter, my woman."
"A little, sir," replied the vender; "but, ere I could count them till ye by baskets, they would lose seven or eight cran in book,* your gain, my loss."
"You are a vara intelligent young person," said Mr. Miller, gravely.
"Ye had measured them wi' your walking-stick, sir; there's just ae scale ye didna wipe off, though ye are a carefu' mon, Mr. Miller; sae I laid the bait for ye an' fine ye took it."
Miller took out his snuff-box, and tapping it said:
"Will ye go into partnership with me, my dear?"
"Ay, sir!" was the reply. "When I'm aulder an' ye're younger."
At this moment the four merchants, believing it useless to disguise their co-operation, returned to see what could be done.
"We shall give you a guinea a barrel."
"Why, ye offered her twenty-two shillings before."
"That we never did, Mr. Miller."
"Haw! haw!" went Flucker.
Christie looked down and blushed.
Eyes met eyes, and without a word spoken all was comprehended and silently approved. There was no nonsense uttered about morality in connection with dealing.
Mr. Miller took an enormous pinch of snuff, and drew for the benefit of all present the following inference:
MR. MILLER'S APOTHEGM.
"Friends and neighbors! when a man's heed is gray with age and thoucht (pause) he's just fit to go to schule to a young lass o' twenty."
There was a certain middle-aged fishwife, called Beeny Liston, a tenant of Christie Johnstone's; she had not paid her rent for some time, and she had not been pressed for it; whether this, or the whisky she was in the habit of taking, rankled in her mind, certain it is she had always an ill word for her landlady.
She now met her, envied her success, and called out in a coarse tone:
"Oh, ye're a gallant quean; ye'll be waur than ever the noo."
"What's wrang, if ye please?" said the Johnstone, sharply.
Reader, did you ever see two fallow bucks commence a duel?
They strut round, eight yards apart, tails up, look carefully another way to make the other think it all means nothing, and, being both equally sly, their horns come together as if by concert.
Even so commenced this duel of tongues between these two heroines.
Beeny Liston, looking at everybody but Christie, addressed the natives who were congregating thus:
"Did ever ye hear o' a decent lass taking the herrin' oot o' the men's mooths? — is yon a woman's pairt, I'm asking ye?"
On this, Christie, looking carefully at all the others except Beeny, inquired with an air of simple curiosity:
"Can onybody tell me wha Liston Carnie's drunken wife is speakin' till? no to ony decent lass, though. Na! ye ken she wad na hae th' impudence!"
"Oh, ye ken fine I'm speakin' till yoursel'."
Here the horns clashed together.
"To me, woman?" (with admirably acted surprise.) "Oo, ay! it will be for the twa years' rent you're awin me. Giest!"
Beeny Liston. "Ye're just the impudentest girrl i' the toon, an' ye hae proved it the day" (her arms akimbo).
Christie (arms akimbo). "Me, impudent? how daur ye speak against my charackter, that's kenned for decency o' baith sides the Firrth."
Beeny (contemptuously). "Oh, ye're sly enough to beguile the men, but we ken ye."
Christie. "I'm no sly, and" (drawing near and hissing the words) "I'm no like the woman Jean an' I saw in Rose Street, dead drunk on the causeway, while her mon was working for her at sea. If ye're no ben your hoose in ae minute, I'll say that will gar Liston Carnie fling ye ower the pier-head, ye fool-moothed drunken leear — Scairt!"*
*A local word; a corruption from the French Sortez.
If my reader has seen and heard Mademoiselle Rachel utter her famous Sortez, in "Virginie," he knows exactly with what a gesture and tone the Johnstone uttered this word.
Beeny (in a voice of whining surprise). "Hech! what a spite Flucker Johnstone's dochter has taen against us."
Beeny (in a coaxing voice, and moving a step). "Aweel! what's a' your paession, my boenny woman?"
Beeny retired before the thunder and lightning of indignant virtue.
Then all the fishboys struck up a dismal chant of victory.
"Yoo-hoo — Custy's won the day — Beeny's scairtit," going up on the last syllable.
Christie moved slowly away toward her own house, but before she could reach the door she began to whimper — little fool.
Thereat chorus of young Athenians chanted:
"Yu-hoo! come back, Beeny, ye'll maybe win yet. Custy's away greetin" (going up on the last syllable).
"I'm no greetin, ye rude bairns," said Christie, bursting into tears, and retiring as soon as she had effected that proof of her philosophy.
It was about four hours later; Christie had snatched some repose. The wind, as Flucker prognosticated, had grown into a very heavy gale, and the Firth was brown and boiling.
Suddenly a clamor was heard on the shore, and soon after a fishwife made her appearance, with rather a singular burden.
Her husband, ladies; rien que cela.
She had him by the scruff of the neck; he was dos-'a-dos, with his booted legs kicking in the air, and his fists making warlike but idle demonstrations and his mouth uttering ineffectual bad language.
This worthy had been called a coward by Sandy Liston, and being about to fight with him, and get thrashed, his wife had whipped him up and carried him away; she now flung him down, at some risk of his equilibrium.
"Ye are not fit to feicht wi' Sandy Liston," said she; "if ye are for feichtin, here's for ye."
As a comment to this proposal, she tucked up the sleeves of her short gown. He tried to run by her; she caught him by the bosom, and gave him a violent push, that sent him several paces backward; he looked half fierce, half astounded; ere he could quite recover himself, his little servant forced a pipe into his hand, and he smoked contented and peaceable.
Before tobacco the evil passions fall, they tell me.
The cause of this quarrel soon explained itself; up came Sandy Liston, cursing and swearing.
"What! ye hae gotten till your wife's; that's the place for ye; to say there's a brig in distress, and ye'll let her go on the rocks under your noses. But what are ye afraid o'? there's na danger?"
"Nae danger!" said one of the reproached, "are ye fou?"
"Ye are fou wi' fear yoursel'; of a' the beasts that crawl the airth, a cooward is the ugliest, I think."
"The wifes will no let us," said one, sulkily.
"It's the woman in your hairts that keeps ye," roared Sandy hoarsely; "curse ye, ye are sure to dee ane day, and ye are sure to be — — !" (a past participle) "soon or late, what signifies when? Oh! curse the hour ever I was born amang sic a cooardly crew." (Gun at sea.)
"She speaks till ye, hersel'; she cries for maircy; to think that, of a' that hear ye cry, Alexander Liston is the only mon mon enough to answer." (Gun.)
"You are mistaken, Mr. Alexander Liston," said a clear, smart voice, whose owner had mingled unobserved with the throng; "there are always men to answer such occasions; now, my lads, your boats have plenty of beam, and, well handled, should live in any sea; who volunteers with Alexander Liston and me?"
The speaker was Lord Ipsden.
The fishwives of Newhaven, more accustomed to measure men than poor little Lady Barbara Sinclair, saw in this man what in point of fact he was — a cool, daring devil, than whom none more likely to lead men into mortal danger, or pull them through it, for that matter.
They recognized their natural enemy, and collected together against him, like hens at the sight of a hawk.
"And would you really entice our men till their death?"
"My life's worth as much as theirs, I suppose.
"Nae! your life! it's na worth a button; when you dee, your next kin will dance, and wha'll greet? but our men hae wife and bairns to look till." (Gun at sea.)
"Ah! I didn't look at it in that light," said Lord Ipsden. He then demanded paper and ink; Christie Johnstone, who had come out of her house, supplied it from her treasures, and this cool hand actually began to convey a hundred and fifty thousand pounds away, upon a sheet of paper blowing in the wind; when he had named his residuary legatee, and disposed of certain large bequests, he came to the point —
"Christie Johnstone, what can these people live on? two hundred a year? living is cheap here — confound the wind!"
"Twahundred? Fifty! Vile count."
"Don't call me vile count. I am Ipsden, and my name's Richard. Now, then, be smart with your names."
Three men stepped forward, gave their names, had their widows provided for, and went for their sou'westers, etc.
"Stay," said Lord Ipsden, writing. "To Christina Johnstone, out of respect for her character, one thousand pounds."
"Richard! dinna gang," cried Christie, "oh, dinna gang, dinna gang, dinna gang; it's no your business."
"Will you lend me your papa's Flushing jacket and sou'wester, my dear? If I was sure to be drowned, I'd go!"
Christie ran in for them.
In the mean time, discomposed by the wind, and by feelings whose existence neither he, nor I, nor any one suspected, Saunders, after a sore struggle between the frail man and the perfect domestic, blurted out:
"My lord, I beg your lordship's pardon, but it blows tempestuous."
"That is why the brig wants us," was the reply.
"My lord, I beg your lordship's pardon," whimpered Saunders. "But, oh! my lord, don't go; it's all very well for fishermen to be drowned; it is their business, but not yours, my lord."
"Saunders, help me on with this coat."
Christie had brought it.
"Yes, my lord," said Saunders, briskly, his second nature reviving.
His lordship, while putting on the coat and hat, undertook to cool Mr. Saunders's aristocratic prejudices.
"Should Alexander Liston and I be drowned," said he, coolly, "when our bones come ashore, you will not know which are the fisherman's and which the viscount's." So saying, he joined the enterprise.
"I shall pray for ye, lad," said Christie Johnstone, and she retired for that purpose.
Saunders, with a heavy heart, to the nearest tavern, to prepare an account of what he called "Heroism in High Life," large letters, and the usual signs of great astonishment!!!!! for the Polytechnic Magazine.
The commander of the distressed vessel had been penny-wise. He had declined a pilot off the Isle of May, trusting to fall in with one close to the port of Leith; but a heavy gale and fog had come on; he knew himself in the vicinity of dangerous rocks; and, to make matters worse, his ship, old and sore battered by a long and stormy voyage, was leaky; and unless a pilot came alongside, his fate would be, either to founder, or run upon the rocks, where he must expect to go to pieces in a quarter of an hour.
The Newhaven boat lay in comparatively smooth water, on the lee side of the pier.
Our adventurers got into her, stepped the mast, set a small sail, and ran out! Sandy Liston held the sheet, passed once round the belaying-pin, and whenever a larger wave than usual came at them, he slacked the sheet, and the boat, losing her way, rose gently, like a cork, upon seas that had seemed about to swallow her.
But seen from the shore it was enough to make the most experienced wince; so completely was this wooden shell lost to sight, as she descended from a wave, that each time her reappearance seemed a return from the dead.
The weather was misty — the boat was soon lost sight of; the story remains ashore.