Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
GATTY'S back was hardly turned when a visitor arrived, and inquired, "Is Mr. Gatty at home?"
"What's your will wi' him?" was the Scottish reply.
"Will you give him this?"
" What est?"
"Are you fond of asking questions?" inquired the man.
"Ay! and fules canna answer them," retorted Christie.
The little document which the man, in retiring, left with Christie Johnstone purported to come from one Victoria, who seemed, at first sight, disposed to show Charles Gatty civilities. "Victoria — to Charles Gatty, greeting! (salutem)." Christie was much struck with this instance of royal affability; she read no further, but began to think, "Victoree! that's the queen hersel. A letter fra the queen to a painter lad! Picters will rise i' the mairket — it will be an order to paint the bairns. I hae brought him luck; I am real pleased." And on Gatty's return, canvas in hand, she whipped the document behind her, and said archly, "I hae something for ye, a tecket fra a leddy, ye'll no want siller fra this day."
"Ay! indeed, fra a great leddy; it's vara gude o' me to gie ye it; heh! tak it."
He did take it, looked stupefied, looked again, sunk into a chair, and glared at it.
"Laddy!" said Christie.
"This is a new step on the downward path," said the poor painter.
"Is it no an orrder to paint the young prence?" said Christie, faintly.
"No!" almost shrieked the victim. "It's a writ! I owe a lot of money.
"See! I borrowed sixty pounds six months ago of a friend, so now I owe eighty!"
"All right!" giggled the unfriendly visitor at the door, whose departure had been more or less fictitious.
Christie, by an impulse, not justifiable, but natural, drew her oyster-knife out, and this time the man really went away.
"Hairtless mon!" cried she, "could he no do his am dirrty work, and no gar me gie the puir lad th' action, and he likeit me sae weel!" and she began to whimper.
"And love you more now," said he; "don't you cry, dear, to add to my vexation."
"Na! I'll no add to your vexation," and she gulped down her tears.
"Besides, I have pictures painted worth two hundred pounds; this is only for eighty. To be sure you can't sell them for two hundred pence when you want. So I shall go to jail, but they won't keep me long.
Then he took a turn, and began to fall into the artistic, or true view of matters, which, indeed, was never long absent from him.
"Look here, Christie," said he, "I am sick of conventional assassins, humbugging models, with dirty beards, that knit their brows, and try to look murder; they never murdered so much as a tom-cat. I always go in for the real thing, and here I shall find it."
"Dinna gang in there, lad, for ony favor."
"Then I shall find the accessories of a picture I have in my head — chains with genuine rust and ancient mouldering stones with the stains of time." His eye brightened at the prospect.
"You among fiefs, and chains, and stanes! Ye'll break my hairt, laddy, ye'll no be easy till you break my hairt." And this time the tears would not be denied.
"I love you for crying; don't cry;" and he fished from the chaotic drawer a cambric handkerchief, with which he dried her tears as they fell.
It is my firm belief she cried nearly twice as much as she really wanted to; she contrived to make the grief hers, the sympathy his. Suddenly she stopped, and said:
"I'm daft; ye'll accept a lane o' the siller fra me, will ye no?"
"No!" said he. "And where could you find eighty pound?"
"Auchty pund," cried she, "it's no auchty pund that will ding Christie Johnstone, laddy. I hae boats and nets worth twa auchtys; and I hae forty pund laid by; and I hae seven hundred pund at London, but that I canna meddle. My feyther lent it the king or the queen, I dinna justly mind; she pays me the interest twice the year. Sac ye ken I could na be sae dirty as seek my siller, when she pays me th' interest. To the very day, ye ken. She's just the only one o' a' my debtors that's hoenest, but never heed, ye'll no gang to jail."
"I'll hold my tongue, and sacrifice my pictures," thought Charles.
"Cheer up!" said Christie, mistaking the nature of his thoughts, "for it did na come fra Victoree hersel'. It wad smell o' the musk, ye ken. Na, it's just a wheen blackguards at London that makes use o' her name to torment puir folk. Wad she pairsecute a puir lad? No likely."
She then asked questions, some of which were embarrassing. One thing he could never succeed in making her understand, how, since it was sixty pounds he borrowed, it could be eighty pounds he owed.
Then once more she promised him her protection, bade him be of good cheer, and left him.
At the door she turned, and said: "Chairles, here's an auld wife seeking ye," and vanished.
These two young people had fallen acquainted at a Newhaven wedding. Christie, belonging to no one, had danced with him all the night, they had walked under the stars to cool themselves, for dancing reels, with heart and soul, is not quadrilling.
Then he had seen his beautiful partner in Edinburgh, and made a sketch of her, which he gave her; and by and by he used to run down to Newhaven, and stroll up and down a certain green lane near the town.
Next, on Sunday evenings, a long walk together, and then it came to visits at his place now and then.
And here. Raphael and Fornarina were inverted, our artist used to work, and Christie tell him stories the while.
And, as her voice curled round his heart, he used to smile and look, and lay inspired touches on his subject.
And she, an artist of the tongue (without knowing herself one), used to make him grave, or gay, or sad, at will, and watch the effect of her art upon his countenance; and a very pretty art it is — the viva voce story-teller's — and a rare one among the nations of Europe.
Christie had not learned it in a day; when she began, she used to tell them like the other Newhaven people, with a noble impartiality of detail, wearisome to the hearer.
But latterly she had learned to seize the salient parts of a narrative; her voice had compass, and, like all fine speakers, she traveled over a great many notes in speaking; her low tones were gorgeously rich, her upper tones full and sweet; all this, and her beauty, made the hours she gave him very sweet to our poor artist.
He was wont to bask in her music, and tell her in return how he loved her, and how happy they were both to be as soon as he had acquired a name, for a name was wealth, he told her. And although Christie Johnstone did not let him see how much she took all this to heart and believed it, it was as sweet music to her as her own honeysuckle breath to him.
She improved him.
He dropped cigars, and medical students, and similar abominations.
Christie's cool, fresh breath, as she hung over him while painting, suggested to him that smoking might, peradventure, be a sin against nature as well as against cleanliness.
And he improved her; she learned from art to look into nature (the usual process of mind).
She had noticed too little the flickering gold of the leaves at evening, the purple hills, and the shifting stories and glories of the sky; but now, whatever she saw him try to imitate, she learned to examine. She was a woman, and admired sunset, etc., for this boy's sake, and her whole heart expanded with a new sensation that softened her manner to all the world, and brightened her personal rays.
This charming picture of mutual affection had hitherto been admired only by those who figured in it.
But a visitor had now arrived on purpose to inspect it, etc., attracted by report.
A friend had considerately informed Mrs. Gatty, the artist's mother, and she had instantly started from Newcastle.
This was the old lady Christie discovered on the stairs.
Her sudden appearance took her son's breath away.
No human event was less likely than that she should be there, yet there she was.
After the first surprise and affectionate greetings, a misgiving crossed him, "she must know about the writ" — it was impossible; but our minds are so constituted — when we are guilty, we fear that others know what we know. Now Gatty was particularly anxious she should not know about this writ, for he had incurred the debt by acting against her advice.
Last year he commenced a picture in which was Durham Cathedral; his mother bade him stay quietly at home, and paint the cathedral and its banks from a print, "as any other painter would," observed she.
But this was not the lad's system; he spent five months on the spot, and painted his picture, but he had to borrow sixty pounds to do this; the condition of this loan was, that in six months he should either pay eighty pounds, or finish and hand over a certain half-finished picture.
He did neither; his new subject thrust aside his old one, and he had no money, ergo, his friend, a picture-dealer, who had found artists slippery in money matters, followed him up sharp, as we see.
"There is nothing the matter, I hope, mother. What is it?"
"I'm tired, Charles." He brought her a seat; she sat down.
"I did not come from Newcastle, at my age, for nothing; you have formed an improper acquaintance."
"I, who? Is it Jack Adams?"
"Worse than any Jack Adams!"
"Who can that be? Jenkyns, mother, because he does the same things as Jack, and pretends to be religious."
"It is a female — a fishwife. Oh, my son!"
"Christie Johnstone an improper acquaintance," said he; "why! I was good for nothing till I knew her; she has made me so good, mother; so steady, so industrious; you will never have to find fault with me again."
"Nonsense — a woman that sells fish in the streets!"
"But you have not seen her. She is beautiful, her mind is not in fish; her mind grasps the beautiful and the good — she is a companion for princes! What am I that she wastes a thought or a ray of music on me? Heaven bless her. She reads our best authors, and never forgets a word; and she tells me beautiful stories — sometimes they make me cry, for her voice is a music that goes straight to my heart."
"A woman that does not even wear the clothes of a lady."
"It is the only genuine costume in these islands not beneath a painter's notice."
"Look at me, Charles; at your mother."
"Yes, mother," said he, nervously.
"You must part with her, or kill me."
He started from his seat and began to flutter up and down the room; poor excitable creature. "Part with her!" cried he; "I shall never be a painter if I do; what is to keep my heart warm when the sun is hid, when the birds are silent, when difficulty looks a mountain and success a molehill? What is an artist without love? How is he to bear up against his disappointments from within, his mortification from without? the great ideas he has and cannot grasp, and all the forms of ignorance that sting him, from stupid insensibility down to clever, shallow criticism?"
"Come back to common sense," said the old lady, coldly and grimly.
He looked uneasy. Common sense had often been quoted against him, and common sense had always proved right.
"Come back to common sense. She shall not be your mistress, and she cannot bear your name; you must part some day, because you cannot come together, and now is the best time."
"Not be together? all our lives, all our lives, ay," cried he, rising into enthusiasm, "hundreds of years to come will we two be together before men's eyes — I will be an immortal painter, that the world and time may cherish the features I have loved. I love her, mother," added he, with a tearful tenderness that ought to have reached a woman's heart; then flushing, trembling, and inspired, he burst out, "And I wish I was a sculptor and a poet too, that Christie might live in stone and verse, as well as colors, and all who love an art might say, 'This woman cannot die, Charles Gatty loved her.'"
He looked in her face; he could not believe any creature could be insensible to his love, and persist to rob him of it.
The old woman paused, to let his eloquence evaporate.
The pause chilled him; then gently and slowly, but emphatically, she spoke to him thus:
"Who has kept you on her small means ever since you were ten years and seven months old?"
"You should know, mother, dear mother."
"Answer me, Charles."
"Who has pinched herself, in every earthly thing, to make you an immortal painter, and, above all, a gentleman?"
"Who forgave you the little faults of youth, before you could ask pardon?"
"My mother! Oh, mother, I ask pardon now for all the trouble I ever gave the best, the dearest, the tenderest of mothers."
"Who will go home to Newcastle, a broken-hearted woman, with the one hope gone that has kept her up in poverty and sorrow so many weary years, if this goes on?"
"Nobody, I hope."
"Yes, Charles; your mother."
"Oh, mother; you have been always my best friend."
"And am this day."
"Do not be my worst enemy now. It is for me to obey you; but it is for you to think well before you drive me to despair."
And the poor womanish heart leaned his head on the table, and began to sorrow over his hard fate.
Mrs. Gatty soothed him. "It need not be done all in a moment. It must be done kindly, but firmly. I will give you as much time as you like."
This bait took; the weak love to temporize.
It is doubtful whether he honestly intended to part with Christie Johnstone; but to pacify his mother he promised to begin and gradually untie the knot.
"My mother will go," whispered his deceitful heart, "and, when she is away, perhaps I shall find out that in spite of every effort I cannot resign my treasure."
He gave a sort of half-promise for the sake of peace.
His mother instantly sent to the inn for her boxes.
"There is a room in this same house," said she, "I will take it; I will not hurry you, but until it is done, I stay here, if it is a twelvemonth about."
He turned pale.
"And now hear the good news I have brought you from Newcastle."
Oh! these little iron wills, how is a great artist to fight three hundred and sixty-five days against such an antagonist?
Every day saw a repetition of these dialogues, in which genius made gallant bursts into the air, and strong, hard sense caught him on his descent, and dabbed glue on his gauzy wings.
Old age and youth see life so differently. To youth, it is a story-book, in which we are to command the incidents, and be the bright exceptions to one rule after another.
To age it is an almanac, in which everything will happen just as it has happened so many times.
To youth, it is a path through a sunny meadow.
To age, a hard turnpike:
Whose travelers must be all sweat and dust, when they are not in mud and drenched:
Which wants mending in many places, and is mended with sharp stones.
Gatty would not yield to go down to Newhaven and take a step against his love, but he yielded so far as to remain passive, and see whether this creature was necessary to his existence or not. Mrs. G. scouted the idea. "He was to work, and he would soon forget her." Poor boy! he wanted to work; his debt weighed on him; a week's resolute labor might finish his first picture and satisfy his creditor. The subject was an interior. He set to work, he stuck to work, he glued to work, his body — but his heart?
Ah, my poor fellow, a much slower horse than Gatty will go by you, ridden as you are by a leaden heart.
Tu nihil invita facies pingesve Minerva.
It would not lower a mechanical dog's efforts, but it must yours.
He was unhappy. He heard only one side for days; that side was recommended by his duty, filial affection, and diffidence of his own good sense.
He was brought to see his proceedings were eccentric, and that it is destruction to be eccentric.
He was made a little ashamed of what he had been proud of.
He was confused and perplexed; he hardly knew what to think or do; he collapsed, and all his spirit was fast leaving him, and then he felt inclined to lean on the first thing he could find, and nothing came to hand but his mother.
Meantime, Christie Johnstone was also thinking of him, but her single anxiety was to find this eighty pounds for him.
It is a Newhaven idea that the female is the natural protector of the male, and this idea was strengthened in her case.
She did not fully comprehend his character and temperament, but she saw, by instinct, that she was to be the protector. Besides, as she was twenty-one, and he only twenty-two, she felt the difference between herself, a woman, and him, a boy, and to leave him to struggle unaided out of his difficulties seemed to her heartless.
Twice she opened her lips to engage the charitable "vile count" in his cause, but shame closed them again; this would be asking a personal favor, and one on so large a scale.
Several days passed thus; she had determined not to visit him without good news.
She then began to be surprised, she heard nothing from him.
And now she felt something that prevented her calling on him.
But Jean Carnie was to be married, and the next day the wedding party were to spend in festivity upon the island of Inch Coombe.
She bade Jean call on him, and, without mentioning her, invite him to this party, from which, he must know, she would not be absent.
Jean Carnie entered his apartment, and at her entrance his mother, who took for granted this was his sweetheart, whispered in his ear that he should now take the first step, and left him.
What passed between Jean Carnie and Charles Gatty is for another chapter.