Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
THE fishing village of Newhaven is an unique place; it is a colony that retains distinct features; the people seldom intermarry with their Scotch neighbors.
Some say the colony is Dutch, some Danish, some Flemish. The character and cleanliness of their female costume points rather to the latter.
Fish, like horse-flesh, corrupts the mind and manners.
After a certain age, the Newhaven fishwife is always a blackguard, and ugly; but among the younger specimens, who have not traded too much, or come into much contact with larger towns, a charming modesty, or else slyness (such as no man can distinguish from it, so it answers every purpose), is to be found, combined with rare grace and beauty.
It is a race of women that the northern sun peachifies instead of rosewoodizing.
On Sundays the majority sacrifice appearance to fashion; these turn out rainbows of silk, satin and lace. In the week they were all grace, and no stays; now they seem all stays and no grace. They never look so ill as when they change their "costume" for "dress."
The men are smart fishermen, distinguished from the other fishermen of the Firth chiefly by their "dredging song."
This old song is money to them; thus:
Dredging is practically very stiff rowing for ten hours.
Now both the Newhaven men and their rivals are agreed that this song lifts them through more work than untuned fishermen can manage.
I have heard the song, and seen the work done to it; and incline to think it helps the oar, not only by keeping the time true, and the spirit alive, but also by its favorable action on the lungs. It is sung in a peculiar way; the sound is, as it were, expelled from the chest in a sort of musical ejaculations; and the like, we know, was done by the ancient gymnasts; and is done by the French bakers, in lifting their enormous dough, and by our paviors.
The song, in itself, does not contain above seventy stock verses, but these perennial lines are a nucleus, round which the men improvise the topics of the day, giving, I know not for what reason, the preference to such as verge upon indelicacy.
The men and women are musical and narrative; three out of four can sing a song or tell a story, and they omit few opportunities.
Males and females suck whisky like milk, and are quarrelsome in proportion. The men fight (round-handed), the women fleicht or scold, in the form of a teapot — the handle fixed and the spout sawing the air.
A singular custom prevails here.
The maidens have only one sweetheart apiece!!!
So the whole town is in pairs.
The courting is all done on Saturday night, by the lady's fire. It is hard to keep out of a groove in which all the town is running; and the Johnstone had possessed, as mere property — a lad!
She was so wealthy that few of them could pretend to aspire to her, so she selected for her chattel a young man called Willy Liston; a youth of an unhappy turn — he contributed nothing to hilarity, his face was a kill-joy — nobody liked him; for this female reason Christie distinguished him.
He found a divine supper every Saturday night in her house; he ate, and sighed! Christie fed him, and laughed at him.
As she neither fed nor laughed at any other man, some twenty were bitterly jealous of Willy Liston, and this gave the blighted youth a cheerful moment or two.
But the bright alliance received a check some months before our tale.
Christie was heluo librorum! and like others who have that taste, and can only gratify it in the interval of manual exercise, she read very intensely in her hours of study. A book absorbed her. She was like a leech on these occasions, non missura cutem. Even Jean Carnie, her co-adjutor or "neebor," as they call it, found it best to keep out of her way till the book was sucked.
One Saturday night Willy Liston's evil star ordained that a gentleman of French origin and Spanish dress, called Gil Blas, should be the Johnstone's companion.
Willy Liston arrived.
Christie, who had bolted the door, told him from the window, civilly enough, but decidedly, "She would excuse his company that night."
"Vara weel," said Willy, and departed.
Next Saturday — no Willy came.
Ditto the next. Willy was waiting the amende.
Christie forgot to make it.
One day she was passing the boats, Willy beckoned her mysteriously; he led her to his boat, which was called "The Christie Johnstone"; by the boat's side was a paint pot and brush.
They had not supped together for five Saturdays.
Ergo, Mr. Liston had painted out the first four letters of "Christie," he now proceeded to paint out the fifth, giving her to understand, that, if she allowed the whole name to go, a letter every blank Saturday, her image would be gradually, but effectually, obliterated from the heart Listonian.
My reader has done what Liston did not, anticipate her answer. She recommended him, while his hand was in, to paint out the entire name, and, with white paint and a smaller brush, to substitute some other female appellation. So saying, she tripped off.
Mr. Liston on this was guilty of the following inconsistency; he pressed the paint carefully out of the brush into the pot. Having thus economized his material, he hurled the pot which contained his economy at "the Johnstone," he then adjourned to the "Peacock," and "away at once with love and reason."
Thenceforth, when men asked who was Christie Johnstone's lad, the answer used to be, "She's seeking ane." Quelle horreur!!
Newhaven doesn't know everything, but my intelligent reader suspects, and, if confirming his suspicions can reconcile him to our facts, it will soon be done.
But he must come with us to Edinburgh; it's only three miles.