Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
"THERE is nothing but meeting and parting in this world!" and you may be sure the incongruous personages of our tale could not long be together. Their separate paths had met for an instant in one focus, furnished then and there the matter of an eccentric story, and then diverged forever.
Our lives have a general current, and also an episode or two; and the episodes of a commonplace life are often rather startling; in like manner this tale is not a specimen, but an episode of Lord Ipsden and Lady Barbara, who soon after this married and lived like the rest of the beau monde. In so doing, they passed out of my hands; such as wish to know how viscounts and viscountesses feed and sleep, and do the domestic (so called), and the social (so called), are referred to the fashionable novel. To Mr. Saunders, for instance, who has in the press one of those cerberus-leviathans of fiction, so common now; incredible as folio to future ages. Saunders will take you by the hand, and lead you over carpets two inches thick — under rosy curtains — to dinner-tables. He will fete you, and opera you, and dazzle your young imagination with e'p'ergnes, and salvers, and buhl and ormolu. No fishwives or painters shall intrude upon his polished scenes; all shall be as genteel as himself. Saunders is a good authority; he is more in the society, and far more in the confidence of the great, than most fashionable novelists. Mr. Saunders's work will be in three volumes; nine hundred and ninety pages!!!!!!
In other words, this single work of this ingenious writer will equal in bulk the aggregate of all the writings extant by Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and St. Paul!!!
I shall not venture into competition with this behemoth of the salon; I will evaporate in thin generalities.
Lord Ipsden then lived very happily with Lady Barbara, whose hero he straightway became, and who nobly and poetically dotes upon him. He has gone into political life to please her, and will remain there — to please himself. They were both very grateful to Newhaven; when they married they vowed to visit it twice a year, and mingle a fortnight's simple life with its simple scenes; but four years have passed, and they have never been there again, and I dare say never will; but when Viscount Ipsden falls in with a brother aristocrat who is crushed by the fiend ennui, he remembers Aberford, and condenses his famous recipe into a two-edged hexameter, which will make my learned reader laugh, for it is full of wisdom:
"Diluculo surgas! miseris succurrere discas!!"
Flucker Johnstone meditated during breakfast upon the five hundred pounds, and regretted he had not years ago adopted Mr. Gatty's profession; some days afterward he invited his sister to a conference. Chairs being set, Mr. Flucker laid down this observation, that near relations should be deuced careful not to cast discredit upon one another; that now his sister was to be a lady, it was repugnant to his sense of right to be a fisherman and make her ladyship blush for him; on the contrary, he felt it his duty to rise to such high consideration that she should be proud of him.
Christie acquiesced at once in this position, but professed herself embarrassed to know how such a "ne'er-do-weel" was to be made a source of pride; then she kissed Flucker, and said, in a tone somewhat inconsistent with the above, "Tell me, my laamb!"
Her lamb informed her that the sea has many paths; some of them disgraceful, such as line or net fishing, and the periodical laying down, on rocky shoals, and taking up again, of lobster-creels; others, superior to anything the dry land can offer in importance and dignity and general estimation, such as the command of a merchant vessel trading to the East or West Indies. Her lamb then suggested that if she would be so good as to launch him in the merchant-service, with a good rig of clothes and money in his pocket, there was that in his head which would enable him to work to windward of most of his contemporaries. He bade her calculate upon the following results: In a year or two he would be second mate, and next year first mate, and in a few years more skipper! Think of that, lass! Skipper of a vessel, whose rig he generously left his sister free to determine; premising that two masts were, in his theory of navigation, indispensable, and that three were a great deal more like Cocker than two. This led to a general consultation; Flucker's ambition was discussed and praised. That modest young gentleman, in spite of many injunctions to the contrary, communicated his sister's plans for him to Lord Ipsden, and affected to doubt their prudence. The bait took; Lord Ipsden wrote to his man of business, and an unexpected blow fell upon the ingenious Flucker. He was sent to school; there to learn a little astronomy, a little navigation, a little seamanship, a little manners, etc.; in the mysteries of reading and writing his sister had already perfected him by dint of "the taws." This school was a blow; but Flucker was no fool; he saw there was no way of getting from school to sea without working. So he literally worked out to sea. His first voyage was distinguished by the following peculiarities: Attempts to put tricks upon this particular novice generally ended in the laugh turning against the experimenters; and instead of drinking his grog, which he hates, he secreted it, and sold it for various advantages. He has been now four voyages. When he comes ashore, instead of going to haunts of folly and vice, he instantly bears up for his sister's house — Kensington Gravel-pits — which he makes in the following manner: He goes up the river — Heaven knows where all — this he calls running down the longitude; then he lands, and bears down upon the Gravel-pits; in particular knowledge of the names of streets he is deficient, but he knows the exact bearings of Christie's dwelling. He tacks and wears according as masonry compels him, and he arrives at the gate. He hails the house, in a voice that brings all the inhabitants of the row to their windows, including Christie; he is fallen upon and dragged into the house. The first thing is, he draws out from his boots, and his back, and other hiding-places, China crape and marvelous silk handkerchiefs for Christie; and she takes from his pocket a mass of Oriental sugar-plums, with which, but for this precaution, she knows by experience he would poison young Charley; and soon he is to be seen sitting with his hand in his sister's, and she lookng like a mother upon his handsome, weather-beaten face, and Gatty opposite, adoring him as a specimen of male beauty, and sometimes making furtive sketches of him. And then the tales he always brings with him; the house is never very dull, but it is livelier than ever when this inexhaustible sailor casts anchor in it.
The friends (chiefly artists) who used to leave at 9:30, stay till eleven; for an intelligent sailor is better company than two lawyers, two bishops, three soldiers, and four writers of plays and tales, all rolled together. And still he tells Christie he shall command a vessel some day, and leads her to the most cheering inferences from the fact of his prudence and his general width-awake; in particular he bids her contrast with him the general fate of sailors, eaten up by land-sharks, particularly of the female gender, whom he demonstrates to be the worst enemies poor Jack has; he calls these sunken rocks, fire-ships and other metaphors. He concludes thus: "You are all the lass I mean to have till I'm a skipper, and then I'll bear up alongside some pretty, decent lass, like yourself, Christie, and we'll sail in company all our lives, let the wind blow high or low." Such is the gracious Flucker become in his twentieth year. Last voyage, with Christie's aid, he produced a sextant of his own, and "made it twelve o'clock" (with the sun's consent, I hope), and the eyes of authority fell upon him. So, who knows? perhaps he may one day, sail a ship; and, if he does, he will be prouder and happier than if we made him monarch of the globe.
To return to our chiefs; Mrs. Gatty gave her formal consent to her son's marriage with Christie Johnstone.
There were examples. Aristocracy had ere now condescended to wealth; earls had married women rich by tallow-importing papas; and no doubt, had these same earls been consulted in Gatty's case, they would have decided that Christie Johnstone, with her real and funded property, was not a villainous match for a green grocer's son, without a rapp;* but Mrs. Gatty did not reason so, did not reason at all, luckily, her heart ran away with her judgment, and, her judgment ceasing to act, she became a wise woman.
*A diminutive German coin.
The case was peculiar. Gatty was a artist pur sang — and Christie, who would not have been the wife for a petit maitre, was the wife of wives for him.
He wanted a beautiful wife to embellish his canvas, disfigured hitherto by an injudicious selection of models; a virtuous wife to be his crown; a prudent wife to save him from ruin; a cheerful wife to sustain his spirits, drooping at times by virtue of his artist's temperament; an intellectual wife to preserve his children from being born dolts and bred dunces, and to keep his own mind from sharpening to one point, and so contracting and becoming monomaniacal. And he found all these qualities, together with the sun and moon of human existence — true love and true religion — in Christie Johnstone.
In similar cases, foolish men have set to work to make, in six months, their diamond of nature, the exact cut and gloss of other men's pastes, and, nervously watching the process, have suffered torture; luckily Charles Gatty was not wise enough for this; he saw nature had distinguished her he loved beyond her fellows; here, as elsewhere, he had faith in nature — he believed that Christie would charm everybody of eye, and ear, and mind, and heart, that approached her; he admired her as she was, and left her to polish herself, if she chose. He did well; she came to London with a fine mind, a broad brogue, a delicate ear; she observed how her husband's friends spoke, and in a very few months she had toned down her Scotch to a rich Ionic coloring, which her womanly instinct will never let her exchange for the thin, vinegar accents that are too prevalent in English and French society; and in other respects she caught, by easy gradation, the tone of the new society to which her marriage introduced her, without, however, losing her charming self.
The wise dowager lodges hard by, having resisted an invitation to be in the same house; she comes to that house to assist the young wife with her experience, and to be welcome — not to interfere every minute, and tease her; she loves her daughter-in-law almost as much as she does her son, and she is happy because he bids fair to be an immortal painter, and, above all, a gentleman; and she, a wifely wife, a motherly mother, and, above all, a lady.
This, then, is a happy couple. Their life is full of purpose and industry, yet lightened by gayety; they go to operas, theaters and balls, for they are young. They have plenty of society, real society, not the ill-assorted collection of a predetermined number of bodies, that blindly assumes that name, but the rich communication of various and fertile minds; they very, very seldom consent to squat four mortal hours on one chair (like old hares stiffening in their hot forms), and nibbling, sipping and twaddling in four mortal hours what could have been eaten, drunken and said in thirty-five minutes. They are both artists at heart, and it shocks their natures to see folks mix so very largely the inutile with the insipidum, and waste, at one huge but barren incubation, the soul, and the stomach, and the irrevocable hours, things with which so much is to be done. But they have many desirable acquaintances, and not a few friends; the latter are mostly lovers of truth in their several departments, and in all things. Among them are painters, sculptors, engineers, writers, conversers, thinkers; these acknowledging, even in England, other gods besides the intestines, meet often chez Gatty, chiefly for mental intercourse; a cup of tea with such is found, by experience, to be better than a stalled elk where chit-chat reigns over the prostrate hours.
This, then, is a happy couple; the very pigeons and the crows need not blush for the nest at Kensington Gravel-pits. There the divine institution Marriage takes its natural colors, and it is at once pleasant and good to catch such glimpses of Heaven's design, and sad to think how often this great boon, accorded by God to man and woman, must have been abused and perverted, ere it could have sunk to be the standing butt of farce-writers, and the theme of weekly punsters.
In this pair we see the wonders a male and female can do for each other in the sweet bond of holy wedlock. In that blessed relation alone two interests are really one, and two hearts lie safe at anchor side by side.
Christie and Charles are friends — for they are man and wife.
Christie and Charles are lovers still — for they are man and wife.
Christie and Charles are one forever — for they are man and wife.
This wife brightens the house, from kitchen to garret, for her husband; this husband works like a king for his wife's comfort, and for his own fame — and that fame is his wife's glory. When one of these expresses or hints a wish, the other's first impulse is to find the means, not the objections.
They share all troubles, and, by sharing, halve them.
They share all pleasures, and, by sharing, double them.
They climb the hill together now, and many a canty day they shall have with one another; and when, by the inevitable law, they begin to descend toward the dark valley, they will still go hand in hand, smiling so tenderly, and supporting each other with a care more lovely than when the arm was strong and the foot firm.
On these two temperate lives old age will descend lightly, gradually, gently, and late — and late upon these evergreen hearts, because they are not tuned to some selfish, isolated key; these hearts beat and ring with the young hearts of their dear children, and years hence papa and mamma will begin life hopefully, wishfully, warmly again with each loved novice in turn.
And when old age does come, it will be no calamity to these, as it is to you, poor battered beau, laughed at by the fair ninnies who erst laughed with you; to you, poor follower of salmon, fox, and pheasant, whose joints are stiffening, whose nerve is gone — whose Golgotha remains; to you, poor faded beauty, who have staked all upon man's appetite, and not accumulated goodness or sense for your second course; to you, poor drawing-room wit, whose sarcasm has turned to venom and is turning to drivel.
What terrors has old age for this happy pair? it cannot make them ugly, for, though the purple light of youth recedes, a new kind of tranquil beauty, the aloe-blossom of many years of innocence, comes to, and sits like a dove upon, the aged faces, where goodness, sympathy and intelligence have harbored together so long; and where evil passions have flitted (for we are all human), but found no resting-place.
Old age is no calamity to them. It cannot terrify them; for ere they had been married a week the woman taught the man, lover of truth, to search for the highest and greatest truths in a book written for men's souls by the Author of the world, the sea, the stars, the sun, the soul; and this book, Dei gratia, will, as the good bishop sings,
"Teach them to live that they may dread The grave as little as their bed."
It cannot make them sad, for, ere it comes loved souls will have gone from earth and from their tender bosom, but not from their memories; and will seem to beckon them now across the cold valley to the golden land.
It cannot make them sad, for on earth the happiest must drink a sorrowful cup more than once in a long life, and so their brightest hopes will have come to dwell habitually on things beyond the grave; and the great painter, jam Senex, will chiefly meditate upon a richer landscape and brighter figures than human hand has ever painted; a scene whose glories he can see from hence but by glimpses and through a glass darkly; the great meadows on the other side of Jordan, which are bright with the spirits of the just that walk there, and are warmed with an eternal sun, and ring with the triumph of the humble and the true, and the praises of God forever.