Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
IT is said that opposite characters make a union happiest; and perhaps Lord Ipsden, diffident of himself, felt the value to him of a creature so different as Lady Barbara Sinclair; but the lady, for her part, was not so diffident of herself, nor was she in search of her opposite. On the contrary, she was waiting patiently to find just such a man as she was, or fancied herself, a woman.
Accustomed to measure men by their characters alone, and to treat with sublime contempt the accidents of birth and fortune, she had been a little staggered by the assurance of this butterfly that had proposed to settle upon her hand — for life.
In a word, the beautiful writer of the fatal note was honestly romantic, according to the romance of 1848, and of good society; of course she was not affected by hair tumbling back or plastered down forward, and a rolling eye went no further with her than a squinting one.
Her romance was stern, not sickly. She was on the lookout for iron virtues; she had sworn to be wooed with great deeds, or never won; on this subject she had thought much, though not enough to ask herself whether great deeds are always to be got at, however disposed a lover may be.
No matter; she kept herself in reserve for some earnest man, who was not to come flattering and fooling to her, but look another way and do exploits.
She liked Lord Ipsden, her cousin once removed, but despised him for being agreeable, handsome, clever, and nobody.
She was also a little bitten with what she and others called the Middle Ages, in fact with that picture of them which Grub Street, imposing on the simplicity of youth, had got up for sale by arraying painted glass, gilt rags, and fancy, against fact.
With these vague and sketchy notices we are compelled to part, for the present, with Lady Barbara. But it serves her right; she has gone to establish her court in Perthshire, and left her rejected lover on our hands.
Journeys of a few hundred miles are no longer described.
You exchange a dead chair for a living chair, Saunders puts in your hand a new tale like this; you mourn the superstition of booksellers, which still inflicts uncut leaves upon humanity, though tailors do not send home coats with the sleeves stitched up, nor chambermaids put travelers into apple-pie beds as well as damp sheets. You rend and read, and are at Edinburgh, fatigued more or less, but not by the journey.
Lord Ipsden was, therefore, soon installed by the Firth side, full of the Aberford.
The young nobleman not only venerated the doctor's sagacity, but half admired his brusquerie and bustle; things of which he was himself never guilty.
As for the prescription, that was a Delphic Oracle. Worlds could not have tempted him to deviate from a letter in it.
He waited with impatience for the yacht; and, meantime, it struck him that the first part of the prescription could be attacked at once.
It was the afternoon of the day succeeding his arrival. The Fifeshire hills, seen across the Firth from his windows, were beginning to take their charming violet tinge, a light breeze ruffled the blue water into a sparkling smile, the shore was tranquil, and the sea full of noiseless life, with the craft of all sizes gliding and dancing and courtesying on their trackless roads.
The air was tepid, pure and sweet as heaven; this bright afternoon, Nature had grudged nothing that could give fresh life and hope to such dwellers in dust and smoke and vice as were there to look awhile on her clean face and drink her honeyed breath.
This young gentleman was not insensible to the beauty of the scene. He was a little lazy by nature, and made lazier by the misfortune of wealth, but he had sensibilities; he was an artist of great natural talent; had he only been without a penny, how he would have handled the brush! And then he was a mighty sailor; if he had sailed for biscuit a few years, how he would have handled a ship!
As he was, he had the eye of a hawk for Nature's beauties, and the sea always came back to him like a friend after an absence.
This scene, then, curled round his heart a little, and he felt the good physician was wiser than the tribe that go by that name, and strive to build health on the sandy foundation of drugs.
"Saunders! do you know what Dr. Aberford means by the lower classes?"
"Perfectly, my lord."
"Are there any about here?"
"I am sorry to say they are everywhere, my lord."
"Get me some" — (cigarette).
Out went Saunders, with his usual graceful empressement, but an internal shrug of his shoulders.
He was absent an hour and a half; he then returned with a double expression on his face — pride at his success in diving to the very bottom of society, and contempt of what he had fished up thence.
He approached his lord mysteriously, and said, sotto voce, but impressively, "This is low enough, my lord." Then glided back, and ushered in, with polite disdain, two lovelier women than he had ever opened a door to in the whole course of his perfumed existence.
On their heads they wore caps of Dutch or Flemish origin, with a broad lace border, stiffened and arched over the forehead, about three inches high, leaving the brow and cheeks unencumbered.
They had cotton jackets, bright red and yellow, mixed in patterns, confined at the waist by the apron-strings, but bobtailed below the waist; short woolen petticoats, with broad vertical stripes, red and white, most vivid in color; white worsted stockings, and neat, though high-quartered shoes. Under their jackets they wore a thick spotted cotton handkerchief, about one inch of which was visible round the lower part of the throat. Of their petticoats, the outer one was kilted, or gathered up toward the front, and the second, of the same color, hung in the usual way.
Of these young women, one had an olive complexion, with the red blood mantling under it, and black hair, and glorious black eyebrows.
The other was fair, with a massive but shapely throat, as white as milk; glossy brown hair, the loose threads of which glittered like gold, and a blue eye, which, being contrasted with dark eyebrows and lashes, took the luminous effect peculiar to that rare beauty.
Their short petticoats revealed a neat ankle, and a leg with a noble swell; for Nature, when she is in earnest, builds beauty on the ideas of ancient sculptors and poets, not of modern poetasters, who, with their airy-like sylphs and their smoke-like verses, fight for want of flesh in woman and want of fact in poetry as parallel beauties.
They are, my lads. — Continuez!
These women had a grand corporeal trait; they had never known a corset! so they were straight as javelins; they could lift their hands above their heads! — actually! Their supple persons moved as Nature intended; every gesture was ease, grace and freedom.
What with their own radiance, and the snowy cleanliness and brightness of their costume, they came like meteors into the apartment.
Lord Ipsden, rising gently from his seat, with the same quiet politeness with which he would have received two princes of the blood, said, "How do you do?" and smiled a welcome.
"Fine! hoow's yoursel?" answered the dark lass, whose name was Jean Carnie, and whose voice was not so sweet as her face.
"What'n lord are ye?" continued she; "are you a juke? I wad like fine to hae a crack wi' a juke."
Saunders, who knew himself the cause of this question, replied, sotto voce, "His lordship is a viscount."
"I didna ken't," was Jean's remark. "But it has a bonny soond."
"What mair would ye hae?" said the fair beauty, whose name was Christie Johnstone. Then, appealing to his lordship as the likeliest to know, she added, "Nobeelity is jist a soond itsel, I'm tauld."
The viscount, finding himself expected to say something on a topic he had not attended much to, answered dryly: "We must ask the republicans, they are the people that give their minds to such subjects."
"And yon man," asked Jean Carnie, "is he a lord, too?"
"I am his lordship's servant," replied Saunders, gravely, not without a secret misgiving whether fate had been just.
"Na!" replied she, not to be imposed upon, "ye are statelier and prooder than this ane."
"I will explain," said his master. "Saunders knows his value; a servant like Saunders is rarer than an idle viscount."
"My lord, my lord!" remonstrated Saunders, with a shocked and most disclamatory tone. "Rather!" was his inward reflection.
"Jean," said Christie, "ye hae muckle to laern. Are ye for herrin' the day, vile count?"
"No! are you for this sort of thing?"
At this, Saunders, with a world of empressement, offered the Carnie some cake that was on the table.
She took a piece, instantly spat it out into her hand, and with more energy than delicacy flung it into the fire.
"Augh!" cried she, "just a sugar and saut butter thegither; buy nae mair at yon shoep, vile count."
"Try this, out of Nature's shop," laughed their entertainer; and he offered them, himself, some peaches and things.
"Hech! a medi — cine!" said Christie.
"Nature, my lad," said Miss Carnie, making her ivory teeth meet in their first nectarine, "I didna ken whaur ye stoep, but ye beat the other confectioners, that div ye."
The fair lass, who had watched the viscount all this time as demurely as a cat cream, now approached him.
This young woman was the thinker; her voice was also rich, full, and melodious, and her manner very engaging; it was half advancing, half retiring, not easy to resist or to describe.
"Noo," said she, with a very slight blush stealing across her face, "ye maun let me catecheeze ye, wull ye?"
The last two words were said in a way that would have induced a bear to reveal his winter residence.
He smiled assent. Saunders retired to the door, and, excluding every shade of curiosity from his face, took an attitude, half majesty, half obsequiousness.
Christie stood by Lord Ipsden, with one hand on her hip (the knuckles downward), but graceful as Antinous, and began.
"Hoo muckle is the queen greater than y' are?"
His lordship was obliged to reflect.
"Let me see — as is the moon to a wax taper, so is her majesty the queen to you and me, and the rest."
"An' whaur does the Juke* come in?"
"On this particular occasion, the Duke** makes one of us, my pretty maid."
"I see! Are na yeawfu' prood o' being a lorrd?"
"What an idea!"
"His lordship did not go to bed a spinning-jenny, and rise up a lord, like some of them," put in Saunders.
"Saunders," said the peer, doubtfully, "eloquence rather bores people."
"Then I mustn't speak again, my lord," said Saunders, respectfully.
"Noo," said the fair inquisitor, "ye shall tell me how ye came to be lorrds, your faemily?"
"Na! ye manna flee to Sandy for a thing, ye are no a bairn, are ye?"
Here was a dilemma, the Saunders prop knocked rudely away, and obliged to think for ourselves.
But Saunders would come to his distressed master's assistance. He furtively conveyed to him a plump book — this was Saunders's manual of faith; the author was Mr. Burke, not Edmund.
Lord Ipsden ran hastily over the page, closed the book, and said, "Here is the story.
"Five hundred years ago — "
"Listen, Jean," said Christie; "we're gaun to get a boeny story. 'Five hundre' years ago,'" added she, with interest and awe.
"Was a great battle," resumed the narrator, in cheerful tones, as one larking with history, "between a king of England and his rebels. He was in the thick of the fight — "
"That's the king, Jean, he was in the thick o't."
"My ancestor killed a fellow who was sneaking behind him, but the next moment a man-at-arms prepared a thrust at his majesty, who had his hands full with three assailants."
"Eh! that's no fair," said Christie, "as sure as deeth."
"My ancestor dashed forward, and, as the king's sword passed through one of them, he clove another to the waist with a blow."
"Weel done! weel done!"
Lord Ipsden looked at the speaker, her eyes were glittering, and her cheek flushing.
"Good Heavens!" thought he; "she believes it!" So he began to take more pains with his legend.
"But for the spearsman," continued he, "he had nothing but his body; he gave it, it was his duty, and received the death leveled at his sovereign."
"Hech! puir mon." And the glowing eyes began to glisten.
"The battle flowed another way, and God gave victory to the right; but the king came back to look for him, for it was no common service."
Here Lord Ipsden began to turn his eye inward, and call up the scene. He lowered his voice.
"They found him lying on his back, looking death in the face.
"The nobles, by the king's side, uncovered as soon as he was found, for they were brave men, too. There was a moment's silence; eyes met eyes, and said, this is a stout soldier's last battle.
"The king could not bid him live."
"Na! lad, King Deeth has ower strong a grrip."
"But he did what kings can do, he gave him two blows with his royal sword."
"Oh, the robber, and him a deeing mon."
"Two words from his royal mouth, and he and we were Barons of Ipsden and Hawthorn Glen from that day to this."
"But the puir dying creature?"
"What poor dying creature?"
"Your forbear, lad."
"I don't know why you call him poor, madam; all the men of that day are dust; they are the gold dust who died with honor.
"He looked round, uneasily, for his son — for he had but one — and when that son knelt, unwounded, by him, he said, 'Goodnight, Baron Ipsden;' and so he died, fire in his eye, a smile on his lip, and honor on his name forever. I meant to tell you a lie, and I've told you the truth."
"Laddie," said Christie, half admiringly, half reproachfully, "ye gar the tear come in my een. Hech! look at yon lassie! how could you think t'eat plums through siccan a bonny story?"
"Hets," answered Jean, who had, in fact, cleared the plate, "I aye listen best when my ain mooth's stappit."
"But see, now," pondered Christie, "twa words fra a king — thir titles are just breeth."
"Of course," was the answer. "All titles are. What is popularity? ask Aristides and Lamartine — the breath of a mob — smells of its source — and is gone before the sun can set on it. Now the royal breath does smell of the Rose and Crown, and stays by us from age to age."
The story had warmed our marble acquaintance. Saunders opened his eyes, and thought, "We shall wake up the House of Lords some evening — we shall."
His lordship then added, less warmly, looking at the girls:
"I think I should like to be a fisherman."
So saying, my lord yawned slightly.
To this aspiration the young fishwives deigned no attention, doubting, perhaps, its sincerity; and Christie, with a shade of severity, inquired of him how he came to be a vile count.
"A baron's no' a vile count, I'm sure," said she; "sae tell me how ye came to be a vile count."
"Ah!" said he, "that is by no means a pretty story like the other; you will not like it, I am sure.
"Ay, will I — ay, will I; I'm aye seeking knoewledge."
"Well, it is soon told. One of us sat twenty years on one seat, in the same house, so one day he got up a — viscount."
"Ower muckle pay for ower little wark."
"Now don't say that; I wouldn't do it to be Emperor of Russia."
"Aweel, I hae gotten a heap out o' ye; sae noow I'll gang, since ye are no for herrin'; come away, Jean."
At this their host remonstrated, and inquired why bores are at one's service night and day, and bright people are always in a hurry; he was informed in reply, "Labor is the lot o' man. Div ye no ken that muckle? And abune a' o' women."*
* A local idea, I suspect. — C. R.
"Why, what can two such pretty creatures have to do except to be admired?"
This question coming within the dark beauty's scope, she hastened to reply.
"To sell our herrin' — we hae three hundre' left in the creel."
"What is the price?"
At this question the poetry died out of Christie Johnstone's face, she gave her companion a rapid look, indiscernible by male eye, and answered:
"Three a penny, sirr; they are no plenty the day," added she, in smooth tones that carried conviction.
(Little liar; they were selling six a penny everywhere.)
"Saunders, buy them all, and be ever so long about it; count them, or some nonsense."
"He's daft! he's daft! Oh, ye ken, Jean, an Ennglishman and a lorrd, twa daft things thegither, he could na' miss the road. Coont them, lassie."
"Come away, Sandy, till I count them till ye," said Jean.
Saunders and Jean disappeared.
Business being out of sight, curiosity revived.
"An' what brings ye here from London, if ye please?" recommenced the fair inquisitor.
"You have a good countenance; there is something in your face. I could find it in my heart to tell you, but I should bore you."
"De'el a fear! Bore me, bore me! wheat's thaat, I wonder?"
"What is your name, madam? Mine is Ipsden."
"They ca' me Christie Johnstone."
"Well, Christie Johnstone, I am under the doctor's hands."
"Puir lad. What's the trouble?" (solemnly and tenderly.)
"Ennui!" (rather piteously.)
"Yawn-we? I never heerd tell o't."
"Oh, you lucky girl," burst out he; "but the doctor has undertaken to cure me; in one thing you could assist me, if I am not presuming too far on our short acquaintance. I am to relieve one poor distressed person every day, but I mustn't do two. Is not that a bore?"
"Gie's your hand, gie's your hand. I'm vexed for ca'ing you daft. Hech! what a saft hand ye hae. Jean, I'm saying, come here, feel this."
Jean, who had run in, took the viscount's hand from Christie.
"It never wroucht any," explained Jean. "And he has bonny hair," said Christie, just touching his locks on the other side.
"He's a bonny lad," said Jean, inspecting him scientifically, and pointblank.
"Ay, is he," said the other. "Aweel, there's Jess Rutherford, a widdy, wi' four bairns, ye meicht do waur than ware your siller on her."
"Five pounds to begin?" inquired his lordship.
"Five pund! Are ye made o' siller? Ten schell'n!"
Saunders was rung for, and produced a one-pound note.
"The herrin' is five and saxpence; it's four and saxpence I'm awin ye," said the young fishwife, "and Jess will be a glad woman the neicht."
The settlement was effected, and away went the two friends, saying:
"Good-boye, vile count."
Their host fell into thought.
"When have I talked so much?" asked he of himself.
"Dr. Aberford, you are a wonderful man; I like your lower classes amazingly."
"Me'fiez vous, Monsieur Ipsden!" should some mentor have said.
As the Devil puts into a beginner's hands ace, queen, five trumps, to give him a taste for whist, so these lower classes have perhaps put forward one of their best cards to lead you into a false estimate of the strength of their hand.
Instead, however, of this, who should return, to disturb the equilibrium of truth, but this Christina Johnstone? She came thoughtfully in, and said:
"I've been taking a thoucht, and this is no what yon gude physeecian meaned; ye are no to fling your chaerity like a bane till a doeg; ye'll gang yoursel to Jess Rutherford; Flucker Johnstone, that's my brother, will convoy ye."
"But how is your brother to know me?"
"How? Because I'll gie him a sair sair hiding, if he lets ye gang by."
Then she returned the one-pound note, a fresh settlement was effected, and she left him. At the door she said: "And I am muckle obleeged to ye for your story and your goodness."
While uttering these words, she half kissed her hand to him, with a lofty and disengaged gesture, such as one might expect from a queen, if queens did not wear stays; and was gone.
When his lordship, a few minutes after, sauntered out for a stroll, the first object he beheld was an exact human square, a handsome boy, with a body swelled out apparently to the size of a man's, with blue flannel, and blue cloth above it, leaning against a wall, with his hands in his pockets — a statuette of insouciance.
This marine puff-ball was Flucker Johnstone, aged fourteen.
Stain his sister's face with diluted walnut-juice, as they make the stage gypsy and Red Indian (two animals imagined by actors to be one), and you have Flucker's face.
A slight moral distinction remains, not to be so easily got over,
She was the best girl in the place, and he a baddish boy.
He was, however, as sharp in his way as she was intelligent in hers.
This youthful mariner allowed his lordship to pass him, and take twenty steps, but watched him all the time, and compared him with a description furnished him by his sister.
He then followed, and brought him to, as he called it.
"I daur say it's you I'm to convoy to yon auld faggitt!" said this baddish boy.
On they went, Flucker rolling and pitching and yawing to keep up with the lordly galley, for a fisherman's natural waddle is two miles an hour.
At the very entrance of Newhaven, the new pilot suddenly sung out, "Starboard!"
Starboard it was, and they ascended a filthy "close," or alley they mounted a staircase which was out of doors, and, without knocking, Flucker introduced himself into Jess Rutherford's house.
"Here a gentleman to speak till ye, wife."