Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
THE widow was weather-beaten and rough. She sat mending an old net.
"The gentleman's welcome," said she; but there was no gratification in her tone, and but little surprise.
His lordship then explained that, understanding there were worthy people in distress, he was in hopes he might be permitted to assist them, and that she must blame a neighbor of hers if he had broken in upon her too abruptly with this object. He then, with a blush, hinted at ten shillings, which he begged she would consider as merely an installment, until he could learn the precise nature of her embarrassments, and the best way of placing means at her disposal.
The widow heard all this with a lackluster mind.
For many years her life had been unsuccessful labor; if anything had ever come to her, it had always been a misfortune; her incidents had been thorns — her events, daggers.
She could not realize a human angel coming to her relief, and she did not realize it, and she worked away at her net.
At this, Flucker, to whom his lordship's speech appeared monstrously weak and pointless, drew nigh, and gave the widow, in her ear, his version, namely, his sister's embellished. It was briefly this: That the gentleman was a daft lord from England, who had come with the bank in his breeks, to remove poverty from Scotland, beginning with her. "Sae speak loud aneuch, and ye'll no want siller," was his polite corollary.
His lordship rose, laid a card on a chair, begged her to make use of him, et cetera; he then, recalling the oracular prescription, said, "Do me the favor to apply to me for any little sum you have a use for, and, in return, I will beg of you (if it does not bore you too much) to make me acquainted with any little troubles you may have encountered in the course of your life."
His lordship, receiving no answer, was about to go, after bowing to her, and smiling gracefully upon her.
His hand was on the latch, when Jess Rutherford burst into a passion of tears.
He turned with surprise.
"My troubles, laddie," cried she, trembling all over. "The sun wad set, and rise, and set again, ere I could tell ye a' the trouble I hae come through.
"Oh, ye need na vex yourself for an auld wife's tears; tears are a blessin', lad, I shall assure ye. Mony's the time I hae prayed for them, and could na hae them Sit ye doon! sit ye doon! I'll no let ye gang fra my door till I hae thankit ye — but gie me time, gie me time. I canna greet a' the days of the week."
Flucker, aetat. 14, opened his eyes, unable to connect ten shillings and tears.
Lord Ipsden sat down, and felt very sorry for her.
And she cried at her ease.
If one touch of nature make the whole world kin, methinks that sweet and wonderful thing, sympathy, is not less powerful. What frozen barriers, what ice of centuries, it can melt in a moment!
His bare mention of her troubles had surprised the widowed woman's heart, and now she looked up and examined his countenance; it was soon done.
A woman, young or old, high or low, can discern and appreciate sensibility in a man's face, at a single glance.
What she saw there was enough. She was sure of sympathy. She recalled her resolve, and the tale of her sorrows burst from her like a flood.
Then the old fishwife told the young aristocrat how she had borne twelve children, and buried six as bairns; how her man was always unlucky; how a mast fell on him, and disabled him a whole season; how they could but just keep the pot boiling by the deep-sea fishing, and he was not allowed to dredge for oysters, because his father was not a Newhaven man. How, when the herring fishing came, to make all right, he never had another man's luck; how his boat's crew would draw empty nets, and a boat alongside him would be gunwale down in the water with the fish. How, at last, one morning, the 20th day of November, his boat came in to Newhaven Pier without him, and when he was inquired for, his crew said, "He had stayed at home, like a lazy loon, and not sailed with them the night before." How she was anxious, and had all the public houses searched. "For he took a drop now and then, nae wonder, and him aye in the weather." Poor thing! when he was alive she used to call him a drunken scoundrel to his face. How, when the tide went down, a mad wife, whose husband had been drowned twenty years ago, pointed out something under the pier that the rest took for sea-weed floating — how it was the hair of her man's head, washed about by the water, and he was there, drowned without a cry or a struggle, by his enormous boots, that kept him in an upright position, though he was dead; there he stood — dead — drowned by slipping from the slippery pier, close to his comrades' hands, in a dark and gusty night; how her daughter married, and was well to do, and assisted her; how she fell into a rapid decline, and died, a picture of health to inexperienced eyes. How she, the mother, saw and knew, and watched the treacherous advance of disease and death; how others said gayly, "Her daughter was better," and she was obliged to say, "Yes." How she had worked, eighteen hours a day, at making nets; how, when she let out her nets to the other men at the herring fishing, they always cheated her, because her man was gone. How she had many times had to choose between begging her meal and going to bed without it, but, thank Heaven! she had always chosen the latter.
She told him of hunger, cold, and anguish. As she spoke they became real things to him; up to that moment they had been things in a story-book. And as she spoke she rocked herself from side to side.
Indeed, she was a woman "acquainted with grief." She might have said, "Here I and sorrow sit. This is my throne, bid kings come and bow to it!"
Her hearer felt this, and therefore this woman, poor, old, and ugly, became sacred in his eye; it was with a strange sort of respect that he tried to console her. He spoke to her in tones gentle and sweet as the south wind on a summer evening.
"Madam," said he, "let me be so happy as to bring you some comfort. The sorrows of the heart I cannot heal; they are for a mightier hand; but a part of your distress appears to have been positive need; that we can at least dispose of, and I entreat you to believe that from this hour want shall never enter that door again. Never! upon my honor!"
The Scotch are icebergs, with volcanoes underneath; thaw the Scotch ice, which is very cold, and you shall get to the Scotch fire, warmer than any sun of Italy or Spain.
His lordship had risen to go. The old wife had seemed absorbed in her own grief; she now dried her tears.
"Bide ye, sirr," said she, "till I thank ye."
So she began to thank him, rather coldly and stiffly.
"He says ye are a lord," said she; "I dinna ken, an' I dinna care; but ye're a gentleman, I daur say, and a kind heart ye hae."
Then she began to warm.
"And ye'll never be a grain the poorer for the siller ye hae gien me; for he that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord."
Then she began to glow.
"But it's no your siller; dinna think it — na, lad, na! Oh, fine! I ken there's mony a supper for the bairns and me in yon bits metal; but I canna feel your siller as I feel your winsome smile — the drop in your young een — an' the sweet words ye gied me, in the sweet music o' your Soothern tongue, Gude bless ye!" (Where was her ice by this time?) "Gude bless ye! and I bless ye!"
And she did bless him; and what a blessing it was; not a melodious generality, like a stage parent's, or papa's in a damsel's novel. It was like the son of Barak on Zophim.
She blessed him, as one who had the power and the right to bless or curse.
She stood on the high ground of her low estate, and her afflictions — and demanded of their Creator to bless the fellow-creature that had come to her aid and consolation.
This woman had suffered to the limits of endurance; yesterday she had said, "Surely the Almighty does na see me a' these years!"
So now she blessed him, and her heart's blood seemed to gush into words.
She blessed him by land and water.
She knew most mortal griefs; for she had felt them.
She warned them away from him one by one.
She knew the joys of life; for she had felt their want.
She summoned them one by one to his side.
"And a fair wind to your ship," cried she, "and the storms aye ten miles to leeward o' her."
Many happy days, "an' weel spent," she wished him.
"His love should love him dearly, or a better take her place."
"Health to his side by day; sleep to his pillow by night."
A thousand good wishes came, like a torrent of fire, from her lips, with a power that eclipsed his dreams of human eloquence; and then, changing in a moment from the thunder of a Pythoness to the tender music of some poetess mother, she ended:
"An' oh, my boenny, boenny lad, may ye be wi' the rich upon the airth a' your days — AND WI' THE PUIR IN THE WARLD TO COME!"
His lordship's tongue refused him the thin phrases of society.
"Farewell for the present," said he, and he went quietly away.
He paced thoughtfully home.
He had drunk a fact with every sentence; and an idea with every fact.
For the knowledge we have never realized is not knowledge to us — only knowledge's shadow.
With the banished duke, he now began to feel, "we are not alone unhappy." This universal world contains other guess sorrows than yours, viscount — scilicet than unvarying health, unbroken leisure, and incalculable income.
Then this woman's eloquence! bless me! he had seen folk murmur politely in the Upper House, and drone or hammer away at the Speaker down below, with more heat than warmth.
He had seen nine hundred wild beasts fed with peppered tongue, in a menagerie called L'Assemble' Nationale.
His ears had rung often enough, for that matter. This time his heart beat.
He had been in the principal courts of Europe; knew what a handful of gentlefolks call "the World"; had experienced the honeyed words of courtiers, the misty nothings of diplomatists, and the innocent prattle of mighty kings.
But hitherto he seemed to have undergone gibberish and jargon:
Gibberish and jargon — Political!
Gibberish and jargon — Social!
Gibberish and jargon — Theological!
Gibberish and jargon — Positive!
People had been prating — Jess had spoken.
But, it is to be observed, he was under the double effect of eloquence and novelty; and, so situated, we overrate things, you know.
That night he made a provision for this poor woman, in case he should die before next week.
"Who knows?" said he, "she is such an unlucky woman." Then he went to bed, and whether from the widow's blessing, or the air of the place, he slept like a plowboy.
Leaving Richard, Lord Ipsden, to work out the Aberford problem — to relieve poor people, one or two of whom, like the Rutherford, were grateful, the rest acted it to the life — to receive now and then a visit from Christina Johnstone, who borrowed every mortal book in his house, who sold him fish, invariably cheated him by the indelible force of habit, and then remorsefully undid the bargain, with a peevish entreaty that "he would not be so green, for there was no doing business with him" — to be fastened upon by Flucker, who, with admirable smoothness and cunning, wormed himself into a cabin-boy on board the yacht, and man-at-arms ashore.
To cruise in search of adventures, and meet nothing but disappointments; to acquire a browner tint, a lighter step, and a jacket, our story moves for a while toward humbler personages.