Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
IT was an hour later; the natives of the New Town had left the pier, and were about their own doors, when three Buckhaven fishermen came slowly up from the pier; these men had arrived in one of their large fishing-boats, which defy all weather.
The men came slowly up; their petticoat trousers were drenched, and their neck-handkerchiefs and hair were wet with spray.
At the foot of the New Town they stood still and whispered to each other.
There was something about these men that drew the eye of Newhaven upon them.
In the first place a Buckhaven man rarely communicates with natives of Newhaven, except at the pier, where he brings in his cod and ling from the deep sea, flings them out like stones, and sells them to the fishwives; then up sail and away for Fifeshire.
But these men evidently came ashore to speak to some one in the town.
They whispered together; something appeared to be proposed and demurred to; but at last two went slowly back toward the pier, and the eldest remained, with a fisherman's long mackintosh coat in his hand which the others had given him as they left him.
With this in his hand, the Buckhaven fisherman stood in an irresolute posture; he looked down, and seemed to ask himself what course he should take.
"What's wrang?" said Jean Carnie, who, with her neighbors, had observed the men; "I wish yon man may na hae ill news."
"What ill news wad he hae?" replied another.
"Are ony freends of Liston Carnie here?" said the fisherman.
"The wife's awa' to Granton, Beeny Liston they ca' her — there's his house," added Jean, pointing up the row.
"Ay," said the fisherman, "I ken he lived there."
"Lived there!" cried Christie Johnstone. "Oh, what's this?"
"Freends," said the man, gravely, "his boat is driving keel uppermost in Kircauldy Bay. We passed her near enough to read the name upon her."
"But the men will have won to shore, please God?"
The fisherman shook his head.
"She'll hae coupit a mile wast Inch Keith, an' the tide rinning aff the island an' a heavy sea gaun. This is a' Newhaven we'll see of them (holding up the coat) "till they rise to the top in three weeks' time."
The man then took the coat, which was now seen to be drenched with water, and hung it up on a line not very far from its unfortunate owner's house. Then, in the same grave and subdued tone in which he had spoken all along, he said, "We are sorry to bring siccan a tale into your toon," and slowly moved off to rejoin his comrades, who had waited for him at no great distance. They then passed through the Old Town, and in five minutes the calamity was known to the whole place.
After the first stupor, the people in the New Town collected into knots, and lamented their hazardous calling, and feared for the lives of those that had just put to sea in this fatal gale for the rescue of strangers, and the older ones failed not to match this present sorrow with others within their recollection.
In the middle of this, Flucker Johnstone came hastily in from the Old Town and told them he had seen the wife, Beeny Liston, coming through from Granton.
The sympathy of all was instantly turned in this direction.
"She would hear the news."
"It would fall on her like a thunderclap."
"What would become of her?"
Every eye was strained toward the Old Town, and soon the poor woman was seen about to emerge from it; but she was walking in her usual way, and they felt she could not carry her person so if she knew.
At the last house she was seen to stop and speak to a fisherman and his wife that stood at their own door.
"They are telling her," was then the cry.
Beeny Liston then proceeded on her way.
Every eye was strained.
No! they had not told her.
She came gayly on, the unconscious object of every eye and every heart.
The hands of this people were hard, and their tongues rude, but they shrunk from telling this poor woman of her bereavement — they thought it kinder she should know it under her own roof, from her friends or neighbors, than from comparative strangers.
She drew near her own door.
And now a knot collected round Christie Johnstone, and urged her to undertake the sad task.
"You that speak sa learned, Christie, ye should tell her; we daur na."
"How can I tell her?" said Christie, turning pale. "How will I tell her? I'se try."
She took one trembling step to meet the woman.
Beeny's eye fell upon her.
"Ay! here's the Queen o' Newhaven," cried she, in a loud and rather coarse voice. "The men will hae ta leave the place now y' are turned fisherman, I daur say."
"Oh, dinna fieicht on me! dinna fieicht on me!" cried Christie, trembling.
"Maircy on us," said the other, "auld Flucker Johnstone's dochter turned humble. What next?"
"I'm vexed for speaking back till ye the morn," faltered Christie.
"Hett," said the woman carelessly, "let yon flea stick i' the wa'. I fancy I began on ye. Aweel, Cirsty," said she, falling into a friendlier tone; "it's the place we live in spoils us — Newhaven's an impudent toon, as sure as deeth.
"I passed through the Auld Toon the noo — a place I never speak in; an' if they did na glower at me as I had been a strange beast.
"They cam' to their very doors to glower at me; if ye'll believe me, I thoucht shame.
"At the hinder end my paassion got up, and I faced a wife East-by, and I said, 'What gars ye glower at me that way, ye ignorant woman?' ye would na think it, she answered like honey itsel'. 'I'm askin' your paarrdon,' says she; and her mon by her side said, 'Gang hame to your ain hoose, my woman, and Gude help ye, and help us a' at our need,' the decent mon. 'It's just there I'm for,' said I, 'to get my mon his breakfast.'"
All who heard her drew their breath with difficulty.
The woman then made for her own house, but in going up the street she passed the wet coat hanging on the line.
She stopped directly.
They all trembled — they had forgotten the coat — it was all over; the coat would tell the tale.
"Aweel," said she, "I could sweer that's Liston Carnie's coat, a droukit wi' the rain; then she looked again at it, and added, slowly, "if I did na ken he has his away wi' him at the piloting." And in another moment she was in her own house, leaving them all standing there half stupefied.
Christie had indeed endeavored to speak, but her tongue had cloven to her mouth.
While they stood looking at one another, and at Beeny Liston's door, a voice that seemed incredibly rough, loud and harsh, jarred upon them; it was Sandy Liston, who came in from Leith, shouting:
"Fifty pounds for salvage, lasses! is na thaat better than staying cooard-like aside the women?"
"Whisht! whisht!" cried Christie.
"We are in heavy sorrow; puir Liston Cairnie and his son Willy lie deed at the bottom o' the Firrth."
"Gude help us!" said Sandy, and his voice sank.
"An', oh, Sandy, the wife does na ken, and it's hairt-breaking to see her, and hear her; we canna get her tell't; ye're the auldest mon here; ye'll tell her, will ye no, Sandy?"
"No, me, that' I will not!"
"Oh, yes; ye are kenned for your stoot heart, an' courage; ye come fra' facing the sea an' wind in a bit yawl."
"The sea and the wind," cried he, contemptuously; "they be — — , I'm used wi' them; but to look a woman i' the face, an' tell her her mon and her son are drowned since yestreen, I hae na coorage for that."
All further debate was cut short by the entrance of one who came expressly to discharge the sad duty all had found so difficult. It was the Presbyterian clergyman of the place; he waved them back. "I know, I know," said he, solemnly. "Where is the wife?"
She came out of her house at this moment, as it happened, to purchase something at Drysale's shop, which was opposite.
"Beeny," said the clergyman, "I have sorrowful tidings."
"Tell me them, sir," said she, unmoved. "Is it a deeth?" added she, quietly.
"It is! — death, sudden and terrible; in your own house I must tell it you — (and may God show me how to break it to her)."
He entered her house.
"Aweel," said the woman to the others, "it maun be some far-awa cousin, or the like, for Liston an' me hae nae near freends. Meg, ye idle fuzzy," screamed she to her servant, who was one of the spectators, "your pat is no on yet; div ye think the men will no be hungry when they come in fra' the sea?"
"They will never hunger nor thirst ony mair," said Jean, solemnly, as the bereaved woman entered her own door.
There ensued a listless and fearful silence.
Every moment some sign of bitter sorrow was expected to break forth from the house, but none came; and amid the expectation and silence the waves dashed louder and louder, as it seemed, against the dike, conscious of what they had done.
At last, in a moment, a cry of agony arose, so terrible that all who heard it trembled, and more than one woman shrieked in return, and fled from the door, at which, the next moment, the clergyman stood alone, collected, but pale, and beckoned. Several women advanced.
"One woman," said he.
Jean Carnie was admitted; and after a while returned.
"She is come to hersel'," whispered she; "I am no weel mysel'." And she passed into her own house.
Then Flucker crept to the door to see.
"Oh, dinna spy on her," cried Christie.
"Oh, yes, Flucker," said many voices.
"He is kneelin'," said Flucker. "He has her hand, to gar her kneel tae — she winna — she does na see him, nor hear him; he will hae her. He has won her to kneel — he is prayin, an' greetin aside her. I canna see noo, my een's blinded."
"He's a gude mon," said Christie. "Oh, what wad we do without the ministers?"
Sandy Liston had been leaning sorrowfully against the wall of the next house; he now broke out:
"An auld shipmate at the whale-fishing!!! an' noow we'll never lift the dredging sang thegither again, in yon dirty detch that's droowned him; I maun hae whisky, an' forget it a'."
He made for the spirit-shop like a madman; but ere he could reach the door a hand was laid on him like a vise. Christie Johnstone had literally sprung on him. She hated this horrible vice — had often checked him; and now it seemed so awful a moment for such a sin, that she forgot the wild and savage nature of the man, who had struck his own sister, and seriously hurt her, a month before — she saw nothing but the vice and its victim, and she seized him by the collar, with a grasp from which he in vain attempted to shake himself loose.
"No! ye'll no gang there at siccan a time."
"Hands off, ye daft jaud," roared he, "or there'll be another deeth i' the toon."
At the noise Jean Carnie ran in.
"Let the ruffian go," cried she, in dismay. "Oh, Christie, dinna put your hand on a lion's mane."
"Yes, I'll put my hand on his mane, ere I'll let him mak a beast o' himsel'."
"Sandy, if ye hurt her, I'll find twenty lads that will lay ye deed at her feet."
"Haud your whisht," said Christie, very sharply, "he's no to be threetened."
Sandy Liston, black and white with rage, ground his teeth together, and said, lifting his hand, "Wull ye let me go, or must I tak my hand till ye?"
"No!" said Christie, "I'll no let ye go, sae look me i' the face; Flucker's dochter, your auld comrade, that saved your life at Holy Isle, think o' his face — an' look in mines — an' strike me!!!"
They glared on one another — he fiercely and unsteadily; she firmly and proudly.
Jean Carnie said afterward, "Her eyes were like coals of fire."
"Ye are doing what nae mon i' the toon daur; ye are a bauld, unwise lassy."
"It's you mak me bauld," was the instant reply. "I saw ye face the mad sea, to save a ship fra' the rocks, an' will I fear a mon's hand, when I can save" (rising to double her height) "my feyther's auld freend fra' the puir mon's enemy, the enemy o' mankind, the cursed, cursed drink? Oh, Sandy Liston, hoow could ye think to put an enemy in your mooth to steal awa your brains!"
"This 's no Newhaven chat; wha lairns ye sic words o' power?"
"A deed mon!"
"I would na wonder, y' are no canny; she's ta'en a' the poower oot o' my body, I think." Then suddenly descending to a tone of abject submission, "What's your pleesure, Flucker Johnstone's dochter?"
She instantly withdrew the offending grasp, and, leaning affectionately on his shoulder, she melted into her rich Ionic tones.
"It's no a time for sin; ye'll sit by my fire, an' get your dinner; a bonny haggis hae I for you an' Flucker, an' we'll improve this sorrowfu' judgment; an' ye'll tell me o' auld times — o' my feyther dear, that likeit ye weel, Sandy — o' the storrms ye hae weathered, side by side — o' the muckle whales ye killed Greenland way — an' abune a', o' the lives ye hae saved at sea, by your daurin an' your skell; an', oh, Sandy, will na that be better as sit an' poor leequid damnation doown your throat, an' gie awa the sense an' feeling o' a mon for a sair heed and an ill name?"
"I'se gang, my lamb," said the rough man, quite subdued; "I daur say whisky will no pass my teeth the day."
And so he went quietly away, and sat by Christie's fireside.
Jean and Christie went toward the boats.
Jean, after taking it philosophically for half a minute, began to whimper.
"What's wrang?" said Christie.
"Div ye think my hairt's no in my mooth wi' you gripping yon fierce robber?"
Here a young fishwife, with a box in her hand, who had followed them, pulled Jean by the coats.
"Hets," said Jean, pulling herself free.
The child then, with a pertinacity these little animals have, pulled Christie's coats.
"Hets," said Christie, freeing herself more gently.
"Ye suld mairry Van Amburgh," continued Jean; "ye are just such a lass as he is a lad."
Christie smiled proudly, was silent, but did not disown the comparison.
The little fishwife, unable to attract attention by pulling, opened her box, and saying, "Lasses, I'll let ye see my presoner. Hech! he's boenny!" pulled out a mouse by a string fastened to his tail and set him in the midst for friendly admiration.
"I dinna like it — I dinna like it!" screamed Christie. "Jean, put it away — it fears me, Jean!" This she uttered (her eyes almost starting from her head with unaffected terror) at the distance of about eight yards, whither she had arrived in two bounds that would have done no discredit to an antelope.
"Het," said Jean, uneasily, "hae ye coowed you savage, to be scared at the wee beastie?"
Christie, looking askant at the animal, explained: "A moose is an awesome beast — it's no like a mon!" and still her eye was fixed by fascination upon the four-footed danger.
Jean, who had not been herself in genuine tranquillity, now turned savagely on the little Wombwelless. "An' div ye really think ye are to come here wi' a' the beasts i' the Airk? Come, awa ye go, the pair o' ye."
These severe words, and a smart push, sent the poor little biped off roaring, with the string over her shoulder, recklessly dragging the terrific quadruped, which made fruitless grabs at the shingle. — Moral. Don't terrify bigger folk than yourself.
Christie had intended to go up to Edinburgh with her eighty pounds, but there was more trouble in store this eventful day.
Flucker went out after dinner, and left her with Sandy Liston, who was in the middle of a yarn, when some one came running in and told her Flucker was at the pier crying for her. She inquired what was the matter. "Come, an' ye'll see," was all the answer. She ran down to the pier. There was poor Flucker lying on his back; he had slipped from the pier into a boat that lay alongside; the fall was considerable; for a minute he had been insensible, then he had been dreadfully sick, and now he was beginning to feel his hurt; he was in great anguish; nobody knew the extent of his injuries; he would let nobody touch him; all his cry was for his sister. At last she came; they all made way for her; he was crying for her as she came up.
"My bairn! my bairn!" cried she, and the poor little fellow smiled, and tried to raise himself toward her.
She lifted him gently in her arms — she was powerful, and affection made her stronger; she carried him in her arms all the way home, and laid him on her own bed. Willy Liston, her discarded suitor, ran for the surgeon. There were no bones broken, but his ankle was severely sprained, and he had a terrible bruise on the loins; his dark, ruddy face was streaked and pale; but he never complained after he found himself at home.
Christie hovered round him, a ministering angel, applying to him with a light and loving hand whatever could ease his pain; and he watched her with an expression she had never noticed in his eye before.
At last, after two hours' silence, he made her sit in full view, and then he spoke to her; and what think you was the subject of his discourse?
He turned to and told her, one after another, without preface, all the loving things she had done to him ever since he was five years old. Poor boy, he had never shown much gratitude, but he had forgotten nothing, literally nothing.
Christie was quite overcome with this unexpected trait; she drew him gently to her bosom, and wept over him; and it was sweet to see a brother and sister treat each other almost like lovers, as these two began to do — they watched each other's eye so tenderly.
This new care kept the sister in her own house all the next day; but toward the evening Jean, who knew her other anxiety, slipped in and offered to take her place for an hour by Flucker's side; at the same time she looked one of those signals which are too subtle for any but woman to understand.
Christie drew her aside, and learned that Gatty and his mother were just coming through from Leith; Christie ran for her eighty pounds, placed them in her bosom, cast a hasty glance at a looking-glass, little larger than an oyster-shell, and ran out.
"Hech! What pleased the auld wife will be to see he has a lass that can mak auchty pund in a morning."
This was Christie's notion.
At sight of them she took out the banknotes, and with eyes glistening and cheeks flushing she cried:
"Oh, Chairles, ye'll no gang to jail — I hae the siller!" and she offered him the money with both hands, and a look of tenderness and modesty that embellished human nature.
Ere he could speak, his mother put out her hand, and not rudely, but very coldly, repelling Christie's arm, said in a freezing manner:
"We are much obliged to you, but my son's own talents have rescued him from his little embarrassment."
"A nobleman has bought my picture," said Gatty, proudly.
"For one hundred and fifty pounds," said the old lady, meaning to mark the contrast between that sum and what Christie had in her hand.
Christie remained like a statue, with her arms extended, and the bank-notes in her hand; her features worked — she had much ado not to cry; and any one that had known the whole story, and seen this unmerited repulse, would have felt for her; but her love came to her aid, she put the notes in her bosom, sighed and said:
"I would hae likeit to hae been the first, ye ken, but I'm real pleased."
"But, mother," said Gatty, "it was very kind of Christie all the same. Oh, Christie!" said he, in a tone of despair.
At this kind word Christie's fortitude was sore tried; she turned away her head; she was far too delicate to let them know who had sent Lord Ipsden to buy the picture.
While she turned away, Mrs. Gatty said in her son's ear:
"Now, I have your solemn promise to do it here, and at once; you will find me on the beach behind these boats — do it."
The reader will understand that during the last few days Mrs. Gatty had improved her advantage, and that Charles had positively consented to obey her; the poor boy was worn out with the struggle — he felt he must have peace or die; he was thin and pale, and sudden twitches came over him; his temperament was not fit for such a battle; and, it is to be observed, nearly all the talk was on one side. He had made one expiring struggle — he described to his mother an artist's nature; his strength, his weakness — he besought her not to be a slave to general rules, but to inquire what sort of a companion the individual Gatty needed; he lashed with true but brilliant satire the sort of wife his mother was ready to see him saddled with — a stupid, unsympathizing creature, whose ten children would, by nature's law, be also stupid, and so be a weight on him till his dying day. He painted Christie Johnstone, mind and body, in words as true and bright as his colors; he showed his own weak points, her strong ones, and how the latter would fortify the former.
He displayed, in short, in one minute, more intellect than his mother had exhibited in sixty years; and that done, with all his understanding, wit and eloquence, he succumbed like a child to her stronger will — he promised to break with Christie Johnstone.
When Christie had recovered her composure and turned round to her companions, she found herself alone with Charles.
"Chairles," said she, gravely.
"Christie," said he, uneasily.
"Your mother does na like me. Oh, ye need na deny it; and we are na together as we used to be, my lad."
"She is prejudiced; but she has been the best of mothers to me, Christie."
"Circumstances compel me to return to England."
(Ah, coward! anything but the real truth!)
"Aweel, Chairles, it will no be for lang."
"I don't know; you will not be so unhappy as I shall — at least I hope not."
"Hoow do ye ken that?"
"Christie, do you remember the first night we danced together?"
"And we walked in the cool by the seaside, and I told you the names of the stars, and you said those were not their real names, but nicknames we give them here on earth. I loved you that first night."
"And I fancied you the first time I set eyes on you."
"How can I leave you, Christie? What shall I do?"
"I ken what I shall do," answered Christie coolly; then, bursting into tears, she added, "I shall dee! I shall dee!"
"No! you must not say so; at least I will never love any one but you."
"An' I'll live as I am a' my days for your sake. Oh, England! I hae likeit ye sae weel, ye suld na rob me o' my lad — he's a' the joy I hae!"
"I love you," said Gatty. "Do you love me?"
All the answer was, her head upon his shoulder.
"I can't do it," thought Gatty, "and I won't! Christie," said he, "stay here, don't move from here." And he dashed among the boats in great agitation.
He found his mother rather near the scene of the late conference.
"Mother," said he, fiercely, like a coward as he was, "ask me no more, my mind is made up forever; I will not do this scoundrelly, heartless, beastly, ungrateful action you have been pushing me to so long."
"Take care, Charles, take care," said the old woman, trembling with passion, for this was a new tone for her son to take with her. "You had my blessing the other day, and you saw what followed it; do not tempt me to curse an undutiful, disobedient, ungrateful son."
"I must take my chance," said he, desperately, "for I am under a curse any way! I placed my ring on her finger, and held up my hand to God and swore she should be my wife; she has my ring and my oath, and I will not perjure myself even for my mother."
"Your ring! Not the ruby ring I gave you from your dead father's finger — not that! not that!"
"Yes! yes! I tell you yes! and if he was alive, and saw her, and knew her goodness, he would have pity on me, but I have no friend; you see how ill you have made me, but you have no pity; I could not have believed it; but, since you have no mercy on me, I will have the more mercy on myself; I marry her to-morrow, and put an end to all this shuffling and maneuvering against an angel! I am not worthy of her, but I'll marry her to-morrow. Good-by."
"Stay!" said the old woman, in a terrible voice; "before you destroy me and all I have lived for, and suffered, and pinched for, hear me; if that ring is not off the hussy's finger in half an hour, and you my son again, I fall on this sand and — "
"Then God have mercy upon me, for I'll see the whole creation lost eternally ere I'll wrong the only creature that is an ornament to the world."
He was desperate; and the weak, driven to desperation, are more furious than the strong.
It was by Heaven's mercy that neither mother nor son had time to speak again.
As they faced each other, with flaming eyes and faces, all self-command gone, about to utter hasty words, and lay up regret, perhaps for all their lives to come, in a moment, as if she had started from the earth, Christie Johnstone stood between them!
Gatty's words, and, still more, his hesitation, had made her quick intelligence suspect. She had resolved to know the truth; the boats offered every facility for listening — she had heard every word.
She stood between the mother and son.
They were confused, abashed, and the hot blood began to leave their faces.
She stood erect like a statue, her cheek pale as ashes, her eyes glittering like basilisks, she looked at neither of them.
She slowly raised her left hand, she withdrew a ruby ring from it, and dropped the ring on the sand between the two.
She turned on her heel, and was gone as she had come, without a word spoken.
They looked at one another, stupefied at first; after a considerable pause the stern old woman stooped, picked up the ring, and, in spite of a certain chill that the young woman's majestic sorrow had given her, said, placing it on her own finger, "This is for your wife!!!"
"It will be for my coffin, then," said her son, so coldly, so bitterly and so solemnly that the mother's heart began to quake.
"Mother," said he calmly, "forgive me, and accept your son's arm.
"I will, my son!"
"We are alone in the world now, mother."
Mrs. Gatty had triumphed, but she felt the price of her triumph more than her victory. It had been done in one moment, that for which she had so labored, and it seemed that had she spoken long ago to Christie, instead of Charles, it could have been done at any moment.
Strange to say, for some minutes the mother felt more uneasy than her son; she was a woman, after all, and could measure a woman's heart, and she saw how deep the wound she had given one she was now compelled to respect.
Charles, on the other hand, had been so harassed backward and forward, that to him certainty was relief; it was a great matter to be no longer called upon to decide. His mother had said, "Part," and now Christie had said, "Part"; at least the affair was taken out of his hands, and his first feeling was a heavenly calm.
In this state he continued for about a mile, and he spoke to his mother about his art, sole object now; but after the first mile he became silent, distrait; Christie's pale face, her mortified air, when her generous offer was coldly repulsed, filled him with remorse. Finally, unable to bear it, yet not daring to speak, he broke suddenly from his mother without a word, and ran wildly back to Newhaven; he looked back only once, and there stood his mother, pale, with her hands piteously lifted toward heaven.
By the time he got to Newhaven he was as sorry for her as for Christie. He ran to the house of the latter; Flucker and Jean told him she was on the beach. He ran to the beach! he did not see her at first, but, presently looking back, he saw her, at the edge of the boats, in company with a gentleman in a boating-dress. He looked — could he believe his eyes? he saw Christie Johnstone kiss this man's hand, who then, taking her head gently in his two hands, placed a kiss upon her brow, while she seemed to yield lovingly to the caress.
Gatty turned faint, sick; for a moment everything swam before his eyes; he recovered himself, they were gone.
He darted round to intercept them; Christie had slipped away somewhere; he encountered the man alone!