Christine: A Fife Fisher Girl
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They waited long. Ruleson’s deep sleep lasted for hours, and the Domine began to hope it might be that life-giving sleep which often introduces the apparently dying to a new lease of life.
He awoke after midnight, with the word “Margot” on his lips, and Margot slipped her hand into his, and kissed him.
“We are going to have supper with the Lord Christ. Will you join us, Ruleson?”
“Ay, will – I – gladly!”
After the simple rite Ruleson was quite happy. He said a few words privately to the Domine, asked for his grandson, and told him to be a good man, and a minister of God, and promised if it was in God’s will he would watch o’er him, and then blessed and sent him away.
“I might hae another struggle at the last. I dinna want him to see it.”
“The struggle is over, James,” answered the Domine. “Be still, and wait for the salvation of the Lord.”
And for some hours, even until the day broke, and the shadows began to flee away, that dying room was in a strange peace. Margot and Christine sat almost motionless, watching their loved one’s face growing more and more calm and content, and the Domine stood or sat at the foot of the bed, and all was intensely still.
“Great things are passing in the soul now,” he said to the women. “It is contemplating the past. It is judging itself. It is bearing witness to the righteousness and mercy of its Maker. Pray that it may come from this great assize justified through Christ.” Soon after, he added “The tide has turned, he will go out with the tide. Stand near him now, and sing softly with me his last human prayer:
Once the dying man opened his eyes, once he smiled, but ere the last line was finished, James Ruleson had
Time waits neither for the living nor the dead, and when a month had come and gone, Margot and Christine had accepted, in some measure, their inevitable condition. Ruleson had left his small affairs beyond all dispute. His cottage was bequeathed entirely to his wife and daughter, “for all the days of their lives.” His boat was to be sold, and the proceeds given to his widow. The two hundred cash he had in the bank was also Margot’s, and the few acres of land he owned he gave to his eldest son, Norman, who had stood faithfully by his side through all his good and evil days. No one was dissatisfied except Norman’s wife, who said her man, being the eldest born, had a full right to house and cash, and a’ there was, saving Margot’s lawful widow right.She said this so often that she positively convinced herself of its rightness and justice, “and some day,” she frequently added, “I will let Mistress and Miss Ruleson know the ground on which they stand.” To Norman, she was more explicit and denunciatory – and he let her talk.
It had been very positively stated in the adoption of James Ruleson, the younger, that the simple decease of his grandfather made him the adopted son of the Domine, and it was thought best to carry out this provision without delay. Margot had been seriously ill after the funeral, and she said calmly now, that she was only waiting until her change came. But life still struggled bravely within her for its promised length, and the Domine said Death would have to take her at unawares, if he succeeded yet awhile. This was the truth. The desire to live was still strong in Margot’s heart, she really wished earnestly to live out all her days.
Now, public sympathy soon wears out. The village which had gone en masse to weep at James Ruleson’s funeral, had in two weeks chosen Peter Brodie to fill his place. The women who were now busy with their spring cleaning, and their preparations for the coming herring season, could not afford to weep any longer with “thae set-up Rulesons.” Neil had ignored all of them at the funeral, Margot’s sorrow they judged to be “a vera dry manifestation,” and Christine would not talk about her father’s last hours. The women generally disapproved of a grief that was so dry-eyed and silent.
So gradually the little house on the hill became very solitary. Jamie ran up from the school at the noon hour, and sometimes he stayed an hour or two with them after the school was closed. Then the Domine came for him, and they all had tea together. But as the evening twilight lengthened, the games in the playground lengthened, and the Domine encouraged the lad in all physical exercises likely to increase his stature and his strength.
Then the herring season came, and the Rulesons had nothing to do with it, and so they gradually lost their long pre?minence. Everyone was busy from early to late with his own affairs. And the Rulesons? “Had they not their gentleman son, Neil? And their four lads wearing the Henderson uniform? And the Domine? And the lad Cluny Macpherson? Did he care for any human creature but Christine Ruleson?”
With these sentiments influencing the village society, it was no wonder that Margot complained that her friends had deserted her. She had been the leader of the village women in their protective and social societies, and there was no doubt she had been authoritative, and even at times tyrannical. But Margot did not believe she had ever gone too far. She was sure that her leniency and consideration were her great failing.
So the winter came again, and Christine looked exceedingly weary. While Ruleson lived, Margot had relied on him, she was sure that he would be sufficient, but after his death, she encouraged an unreasonable trial of various highly reputed physicians. They came to her from Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and she believed that every fresh physician was the right one. The expense of this method was far beyond the profit obtained. Yet Christine could not bear to make any protest.
And the weeks went on, and there appeared to be neither profit nor pleasure in them. The Domine watched Christine with wonder, and in the second year of her vigil, with great anxiety. “Christine will break down soon, Margot,” he said one day to the sick woman. “Look at the black shadows under her eyes. And her eyes are losing all their beauty, her figure droops, and her walk lags and stumbles. Could you not do with Faith for a few days, and let Christine get away for a change? You’ll hae a sick daughter, if you don’t do something, and that soon.”
“I canna stand Faith Anderson. She’s o’er set up wi’ hersel’. I am that full o’ pain and sorrow that Faith’s bouncing happiness is a parfect blow in a body’s face.”
“The schoolmaster’s wife?”
“I’m no a bairn, Domine; and she treats auld and young as if they were bairns. She would want to teach me my alphabet, and my catechism o’er again.”
“There’s Nannie Brodie. She is a gentle little thing. She will do all Christine does for a few shillings a week.”
“What are you thinking of, Domine? I couldna afford a few shillings a week. I hae wonderfu’ expenses wi’ doctors and medicines, and my purse feels gey light in my hand.”
“I see, Margot, that my advice will come to little. Yet consider, Margot, if Christine falls sick, who will nurse her? And what will become o’ yourself?”
He went away with the words, and he found Christine sitting on the doorstep, watching the sea, as she used to watch it for her father’s boat. She looked tired, but she smiled brightly when he called her name.
“My dear lassie,” he said, “you ought to have some new thoughts, since you are not likely to get new scenes. Have you any nice books to read?”
“No, sir. Mither stopped Chambers Magazine and The Scotsman, and I ken a’ the books we hae, as if they were school books. Some o’ them are Neil’s old readers.”
“You dear, lonely lassie! This day I will send you some grand novels, and some books of travel. Try and lose yourself and your weariness in them.”
“O, Sir! If you would do this, I can bear everything! I can do everything!”
“I’ll go home this hour, and the books will be here before dark. Get as much fresh air as you can, and fill your mind with fresh pictures, and fresh ideas, and I wouldn’t wonder if you win back your spirits, and your beauty. Your mother is a great care, lassie!”
“Ay, Doctor, but she is in God’s care. I hae naething to do but help and pleasure her, when she’s waking. She sleeps much o’ her time now. I think the medicine o’ the last doctor frae Aberdeen, is the because o’ her sleepiness. I was going to ask you to take a look at it.”
He did so, and said in reply, “There’s no harm in it, but it would be well enough to give it with a double portion of water.”
Then the Domine went away, and Christine did not know that this hour was really the turning point of her life. And it is perhaps well for the majority that this important crisis is seldom recognized on its arrival. There might be interferences, and blunderings of all kinds. But a destiny that is not realized, or meddled with, goes without let or hindrance to its appointed end.
Christine rose with a new strength in her heart and went to her mother. “Come here, dear lass,” said Margot. “The Domine was telling me thou art sick wi’ the nursing o’ me, and that thou must hae a change.”
“The Domine had no right to say such a thing. I am quite well, Mither. I should be sick, if I was one mile from you. I have no work and no pleasure away from your side, dear, dear Mither! I am sorry the Domine judged me sae hardly.”
“The Domine is an interfering auld man. He is getting outside his pulpit. When I was saying I missed wee Jamie, and I wished him to come mair often to see me, you should hae watched him bridle up. ‘James must be more under control,’ he said, in a vera pompous manner. I answered, ‘The laddie is quite biddable, Doctor,’ and he said, ‘Mistress, that belongs to his years. He is yet under authority, and I cannot allow him too much freedom.’ And the bairn is my ain! My ain grandchild! Too much freedom wi’ his sick grandmother! Heard ye ever the like?”
“Weel, Mither, he was right in a way. Jamie has been a bit stiff-necked and self-willed lately.”
“There isna a thing wrang wi’ the laddie.”
“Weel, he behaves better wi’ you than wi’ any other person. The Domine is making a fine lad o’ him.”
“He was a’ that, before the Domine kent him at a’. I wasna carin’ for the reverend this afternoon. I dinna wonder the village women are saying he has his fingers in everyone’s pie.”
“It is for everyone’s good, Mither, if it be true; but you ken fine how little the village say-so can be trusted; and less now, than ever; for since you arena able to sort their clashes, they say what they like.”
“Nae doubt o’ it, Christine.”
“The Domine promised to send me some books to read. You see, Mither, the pain you hae wearies you sae that you sleep a great deal, and I am glad o’ it, for the sleep builds up what the pain pulls down, so that you hold up your ain side better than might be.”
“That’s a plain truth, dearie.”
“Then when you sleep, I am lonely, and I get to thinking and worrying anent this and that, and so I look tired when there’s naething wrang. But if I had books to read, when I hadna yoursel’ to talk wi’, I would be gey happy, and maybe full o’ wonderfuls to tell you as you lie wakin’ and wearyful.”
“It is a maybe, and you hae to give maybes a trial.”
“You see, Mither, we gave up our Chambers Magazine and The Scotsman when Feyther left us alane.”
“It was right to do sae; there was sae many expenses, what wi’ the burying, and wi’ my sickness, the last item being a constant outgo.”
“You must hae the medicines, and we be to gie up all expenses, if so be it was needed for that end.”
“Weel, if I was to stay here, and be a troubler much langer, that might be needed, but I hae a few pounds left yet.”
“It will never be needed. The children o’ the righteous hae a sure claim on the God o’ the righteous, and He is bound and ready to answer it. Those were almost the last words Feyther said to me. I was wearying for books, and you see, He has sent them to me, without plack or bawbee.”
“Weel, lassie, if books will mak’ you happy, I am glad they are coming to you. Whiles you can read a short story out o’ Chambers to mysel’. I used to like thae little love tales, when you read one sometimes to us by the fireside. Anyway, they were mair sensible than the village clash-ma-clavers; maist o’ which are black, burning lees.”
“Dear Mither, we’ll hae many a happy hour yet, wi’ the tales I shall read to you.”
“Nae doubt o’ it. They’ll all o’ them be lees – made up lees – but the lees won’t be anent folks we ken, and think weel of, or anent oursel’s.”
“They won’t be anent anybody, Mither. The men who write the stories make up the men and women, and then make up the things they set them to do, and to say. It is all make-believe, ye ken, but many a good lesson is learned by good stories. They can teach, as well as sermons. Folks that won’t go and hear a sermon will maybe read a good story.”
“You wadna daur to read them in a kirk, for they arena the truth.”
“Weel, there are many other things you wouldna care to read in the kirk – a perfectly honest love letter, for instance.”
“When did you hear frae Cluny?”
“Yesterday. He is kept vera close to his business, and he is studying navigation, so that helps him to get the long hours in foreign ports over. He’s hoping to get a step higher at the New Year, and to be transferred to the Atlantic boats. Then he can perhaps get awa’ a little oftener. Mither, I was thinking when you got strong enough, we might move to Glasgow. You would hae a’ your lads, but Norman, mair at your hand then.”
“Ay, but Norman is worth a’ the lave o’ them, and beside if I left this dear auld hame, Norman would want to come here, and I couldna thole the thought o’ that ill luck. Yet it would be gey hard to refuse him, if he asked me, and harder still to think night and day o’ his big, blundering, rough lads, among my flower beds, and destroying everything in baith house and bounds. I couldna think o’ it! Your feyther brought me here when the house was naething at a’ but a but and a ben. A bed and a table, a few chairs, and a handfu’ o’ crockery was a’ we had in the wide warld – save and forbye, as I hae often told you, my gold wedding ring.” And Margot held up her white, shrunken hand, and looked at it with tears streaming down her face. And oh, how tenderly Christine kissed her hand and her face, and said she was right, and she did not wonder she feared Norman’s boys. They were a rough-and-tumble lot, but would make fine men, every one o’ them being born for the sea, and the fishing.
“Just sae, Christine. They’ll do fine in a fishing boat, among nets and sails. But here! Nay, nay! And then there’s the mither o’ them! That woman in my place! Can you think o’ it, lassie?”
“We’ll never speak again o’ the matter. I ken how you feel, Mither. It would be too cruel! it would be mair than you could bear.”
Then there was a man’s voice heard in the living room, and Christine went to answer the call. It was the Domine’s messenger, with his arms full of books. And Christine had them taken into her mother’s room, and for a whole hour sat beside her and showed her books full of pictures, and read short anecdotes from the magazine volume, and Margot for a while seemed interested, but finally said with an air of great weariness: “Tak’ them all awa’, dearie. Ye can hae the best bedroom for them.”
“Dear Mither, will you let me hae the use o’ it? I will keep a’ in order, and it is sae near to yoursel’, I could hear you if you only spoke my name.”
“Tak’ the room and welcome. Neil had it for many a year. It has a feeling o’ books and lesson-larning in it.”
So that night, when her mother was in her first sleep, Christine took her books into this large, silent room. It faced the sea. It had an atmosphere different from that of any other room in the house, and no one but herself was likely to enter it. There was a broad sill to the largest window, and Christine arranged the Domine’s books on it. In the dozen or more volumes there was a pleasant variety – history, poetry and the popular novels of the time – especially the best work of George Eliot, Miss Braddon, Thackeray, and Dickens.
It was all so wonderful to Christine, she could hardly believe it. She touched them lovingly, she could have kissed them. For in those days in Scotland, good literature was yet a sort of luxury. A person in a country place who had a good novel, and was willing to loan it, was a benefactor. Christine had borrowed from the schoolmaster’s wife all she had to lend, and for several weeks had been without mental food and mental outlook. Was there any wonder that she was depressed and weary-looking?
Now all quickly changed. The housework went with her as if it were paid to do so. She sang as she worked. She was running in and out of Mither’s room with unfailing cheerfulness, and Margot caught her happy tone, and they were sufficient for each other. Mother and books would have been sufficient alone, but they had also many outside ties and interests. The Domine allowed Jamie to go to grandmother’s once a day. There were Cluny and Neil, and all the rest of the boys, the Domine and the villagers, the kirk and the school; and always Jamie came in the afternoon, and brought with him the daily Glasgow Herald. It was the Domine’s way. At first he had not consciously recognized what Christine required, but as soon as the situation was evident to him, he hasted to perform the good work, and he did the duty liberally, and wearied not in it.
So the days came and went, and neither Margot nor Christine counted them, and Cluny came whenever he could by any travel get a few hours with Christine. And the herring season came and went again, and was not very successful. Margot and Christine were sorry, but it was no longer a matter of supreme importance. Still, the gossip concerning the fishing always interested Margot, and someone generally brought it to her. If no one did, she frankly asked the Domine what was going on, for he always knew everything affecting the people who sat in Culraine Kirk of Scotland.
Certainly he watched Christine’s improvement with the greatest interest and pleasure. In six months she was a far more beautiful woman than she had ever before been. Her soul was developing on the finest lines, and it was constantly beautifying its fleshly abode. The work was like that of a lapidary who, day by day, cuts and polishes a gem of great value. Even Margot occasionally looked intently at her daughter, and said wonderingly, “You are growing very bonnie, Christine, the Domine must hae lost his sight, when he thought you were sick and wearying for a change.”
“I’m never sick, Mither. Whiles, when I was worrying mysel’ anent Angus Ballister, I used to hae a dowie weariness come o’er me; but since feyther went awa’ I havena had as much as a headache. Now if it suits you, Mither, I’ll gie you your knitting, I’m wanting to go and write down something.”
“Weel, gie me the needles, and gie my love to Cluny, and tell him to bring me ane o’ them white fuchsia plants he saw in a Glasgow window.”
“I hae given that word already, Mither.”
“Do it again, lassie. Any man bides twice telling.”
But the writing Christine wished to do was not a letter to her lover. It was some lines that had been running through her mind for an hour, and she knew that the only way in which she could lay their persistency, was to write them down. She had just finished this work, when the door was opened, and the Domine came in, with a gust of wind, that blew the paper on which she was writing across the room. He caught it first, and he smiled when he saw it was poetry.
“I’ll even read it, Christine, it might be worth while.”
“I couldna help writing the lines down, Sir. They bothered me till I did sae. They always do.”
“Oh-h! Then the lines are your own. That is a circumstance I cannot pass.”
“Gie them to me, Sir. Please!”
“When I have read them, Christine,” and immediately he proceeded to read them aloud. He read them twice, the second time with care and sympathy:
“The boats rocked idly on the bay,
“Weel, Sir, will you give me the bit paper now?”
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