Christine: A Fife Fisher Girl
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The novel now progressed rapidly. It was writing itself, and “The Daughter of the Sea” was all the company Christine wanted. Norman came up the hill once in the day, or he sent his son Will, in his place, and Jamie always ate his lunch beside Aunt Christine, and sometimes Judith called to see if there was any news of Cluny. Sunday was her day of trial. Ill-will can make itself felt, and never say a word, and Christine noticed that everyone drew away from her. If Judith, or Peter Brodie, or anyone spoke to her, they were at once set apart. Everyone else drew away, and the very girls to whom she had been kindest, drew furthest away.
It was, perhaps, a good thing for her. She only drew the closer to God, and her pen was a never-failing friend and companion. The days flew by, in the nights she slept and dreamed, and now and then the Domine came in, and comforted and strengthened her. Then she read him little chapters from her book, and he gave her much good advice, and sufficient praise to encourage her. So week after week went on, and though the whole village really disapproved of her retaining the Ruleson cottage, she nearly forgot the circumstance. And the book grew and grew in beauty, day by day, until on one lovely June afternoon, the pretty heroine married Sandy Gilhaize, and behaved very well ever afterward.
The Domine came in and found her flushed and excited over the wedding, and the parting, and he took the book away with him, and told her he would look after its sale, and she was to worry no more about it. “Try and forget it exists, Christine, then neither your wishing nor your fearing will interfere with the fortune your good angel intends for it.”
“I am going to gie the house a good clean, frae the roof to the doorstep,” she answered, “and when I hae that business on hand, it is all I can think about.”
“Is not cleaning the house again a work of supererogation?”
“I dinna ken what kind o’ wark that may be, Sir, but Mither always cleaned the house weel, before the herring came. She’ll be expecting me to do the same thing.”
So the Domine took away the manuscript, and Christine cleaned her house with even extra care, and one night a week afterwards, she sat down to her cup of tea, telling herself that there wasna a speck o’ dust from the roof to the doorstane. “Even the knives and forks shine like siller,” she said, “and the bath-brick board wouldna file the cleanest duster.” She was personally in the same spotless condition, and the little scone, and bit of baked fish, and the cup of tea on the snow white tablecloth, only emphasized this sense of absolute purity.
As she was drinking her tea, Norman lifted the latch and entered, and she greeted him joyfully. “Come awa’ and welcome,” she cried. “I was just longing to see you. Bring a cup and saucer off the rack, laddie, and sit down, and tell me what’s going on in the village.”
“Weel, the great news is the nearness o’ the herrin’. From a’ accounts we may hae them in our bay in a week.”
“I am glad o’ the news.”
“I dinna think you would be carin’.”
“Why shouldn’t I care? I am longing to mak’ some money.I intend to tak’ up my mither’s kippering.”
“I’m glad o’ that. Why should ye let it slip through your fingers? I heard tell that Nancy Baird was thinking o’ taking Mither’s place.”
“She’ll do naething o’ that kind. Mither took pains to fit me for that wark, and I am going to do it wi’ all my might. Norman, what can you do to mak’ it easy for me?”
“That is what I came here to talk to you about. I’ll tell Willie he is your gillie, as it were, for the fishing. He will carry the fish to the shed for you, and dinna forget Mither’s cubby there is yours! Feyther paid for the space, and put up all the fixtures. If they werna named in the will, and there is any question of my right in the matter, say, I hae given it to you.”
“But the kippering shed and fixtures were named and given to Mither and mysel’, and – ”
“They are yours. Let no one put you oot o’ your right. Willie will bring the feesh to you – the finest I hae in my nets – and when they are kippered, he’ll go to the town wi’ you, and carry your basket.”
“That is all I need, Norman, and I am vera gratefu’ for your kindness.”
“And I’ll be walking through the shed, to see that a’ is right. And if anything is beyont you, sister, you’ll send Willie for me.”
Christine could not speak, but she put her hand in his, and the look on her lovely face filled his eyes with tears. “You are wonderfu’ like Mither this afternoon, Christine,” he said softly. And both were silent a little while. When he spoke next, it was of Neil – “Hae ye had a word frae the lad yet?” he asked.
“Not one, nor from the lass he married. I don’t know what to think.”
“Weel, it is as easy to think good, as evil. If we dinna thing wrang, we won’t do wrang. Thinking no evil! That is what the Good Book advises. The puir lad was spoiled i’ the making. If he comes back to any o’ us, he will come back to you, Christine. There was the son, wha left his hame, in the gospels – ye ken how he was treated?”
“Whenever Neil comes hame, Norman, he will hae a loving welcome from Christine.”
“The puir lad made a mistake wi’ his marriage. That is the warst of a’ mistakes. No man wins o’er it. It is the bitter drop in a’ he eats and drinks, it is the pebble in his shoe, whether he warks or plays. Neil willna come hame till sorrow drives him here – then?”
“I’ll do all that love can do, Norman.”
“And call on me, if you think it needfu’.”
The very next day Christine went to see her mother’s customers. The idea of Nancy Baird’s stepping into her mother’s shoes was intolerable. “I’ll not thole a thing like that! It settles the question to me! If I didna need the money, I would kipper the herrin’, but I’m needing the money, and the herrin’ are my lawfu’ venture.” So to the town she went, and even far exceeded her usual orders. She was much elated by her success, and immediately began to prepare her mother’s place for the work before her. It caused much talk in the village, but it prevented the Baird woman’s taking unauthorized possession of Christine’s place in the curing-shed.
Then while she was waiting and watching for the fish, she got a letter from Cluny. He was at home again. He was coming to Culraine on Saturday. He would be there by noon, and he would remain in Culraine until Monday night. She was full of joy, and instantly began to prepare for her visitor. It was Friday morning, and she had but little time, but that little was enough if things went with her. First she went to the village and asked Judith to come and stay with her, until the following Tuesday, and the old woman was delighted to do so. “We will hae Cluny to oursel’s then,” she said, “and I’ll tak’ the house wark off your hands, Christine, and you and Cluny can hae the time for your ain talk and planning.”
“And man nor woman can say nae ill word anent Cluny visiting me, if you are here.”
“Lat them say their pleasure. They’ll say naething oot o’ the way, while I am here. They ken better.”
“Because I hae promised ane and all o’ them to call a church session the first ill word I hear. I will hae their names read out frae the pulpit – christened name and surname – and then they will be oot o’ communion wi’ the kirk, till they confess their sin, standing up in the congregation, and asking to be forgiven. Will ye think o’ Sally Johnson, and Kitty Brawn, and a’ that crowd o’ sinful women making such a spectacle o’ themsel’s! Gar! It makes me laugh.” And she laughed, as women of the natural order do laugh, and such laughing is very contagious, and Christine laughed also, as she gurgled out, “You never would do a thing like that, Judith?”
“Wouldn’t I? Lat them try me.”
“The Domine wouldn’t do it.”
“He couldna help himsel’. It is in the ‘Ordering o’ the Kirk.’ He wad be forced to call the session, and I wouldn’t won’ner if he rayther liked the jarring occasion. He dislikes insulting women, and why shouldn’t he like to gie them a galling withstanding. It wad be vera desirable i’ my opinion.”
Cluny had said, in his letter, that his next voyage would be the last before their marriage, and that he would have to sweeten the next half year with the memories of his coming visit. So Christine killed her young, plump, spring chickens, and saved all her eggs, and provided every good thing she could for her expected lover.
The next three days were days taken out of this work-a-day world, and planted in Paradise. Everything appeared to unite to make them so. Judith looked after the house, the lovers wandered in the hill side garden. They were lovely days, green, shot with gold, and the whole sweet place was a caress of scent. The roses in Margot’s garden were in their first spring beauty, and the soul of a white jasmine vine, that surrounded the spot, breathed of heaven. The larkspurs stood around like watchful grenadiers. Lilies and pansies were at their feet, and the laburnum hung its golden droops above them. All the day long, the sea was blue and calm, and the waves seemed to roll themselves asleep upon the shore. At night, there was a full moon above the water, and in its light the projecting rigging of some ships lying on it looked like spider webs on the gray firmament. The sun, and the moon, and the sea were all new, and the whole world was their own.
Talk of their marriage no longer made trouble, for Christine now sweetly echoed his hopes and his dreams. She had said “on the fifteenth of next April, or there-abouts,” and Cluny seized and clung to the positive date. “Let it be the fifteenth,” he decided. “I cannot bear ‘there-abouts,’ or any other uncertainty.”
“The fifteenth might fall on a Sunday.”
“Then let it be Sunday. There can be no better day;” and Christine smiled and lifted her beautiful face, and he wanted to give her a thousand kisses. For nearly three days all the ancient ecstasies of love and youth were theirs. I need say no more. The morning redness of life and love has once tinged us all.
Judith went home the following day. Nothing less than the joys and sorrows and contentions of the whole village, were sufficient for her troubled and troubling spirit. Judith had everyone’s affairs to look after, but she gave the supremacy of her attention to Cluny and Christine. Christine, she said, was a by-ordinary girl. She had written a poem, and got gude siller for it, and there wasna anither lass in Culraine, no, nor i’ the hale o’ Scotland, could do the same thing.
Christine’s first employment was to put her house in perfect order, then she took out her old fisher dresses, and selected one for the work before her. She hoped that her effort to take her mother’s place in the kippering shed would put a stop to the fisherwives’ opinion that she was “setting hersel’ up aboon them a’.” She longed for their good will, and she had no desire whatever to “tak’ her mither’s outstanding place,” a fear of which intention some of the older women professed.
Her first visitor was her brother Norman. He put a stop at once to all her good and kind intentions. “You mustna go near the kippering,” he said. “I hae heard what must put a stop to that intent. The herrin’ are near by, and may be here tonight. If so be, I will send my lad, Willie, to the foot o’ the hill wi’ your feesh, by five o’clock in the morning. He will carry your basket easy, and do your bidding in a’ things. Gae yer ways to the town, and cry your feesh, and you’ll hae the siller in your hand when you come hame.”
“Why can I not kipper my fish, Norman?”
“It isna worth while tellin’ ye. God alone understands quarrelsome women, but if you go to the kippering-shed, there will be trouble – and trouble for me, Christine – for Jessy is in wi’ them.”
“I will do as you tell me, Norman. Hae the fish ready at six o’clock.”
Then Norman went away, and Christine put back in its place the kippering suit, and took out her very prettiest selling suit. For her mourning dress touched only her domestic and social life, her business had its own dress, and the fisher dress was part of the business. She had no sense of humiliation in assuming it, nor yet in the selling of the fish. She had liked very well the little gossip with known householders, and had not been offended by the compliments she received from strangers and passersby. The first morning of this new season was really a little triumph. All her old friends wanted to hear about Margot’s sickness and death, and when her basket was empty, she sent Willie home and stayed with an old friend of her mother’s, and had a cup of tea and a fried herring with her.
They had much to talk about, and Christine resolved to stay with her until the mail should come in, which would be about eleven o’clock. Then if there was any letter for her, she could get it at once. “The Domine is aye thoughtless anent the mail,” she reflected, and then with a little laugh added, “he hasna any love letters coming, or he would be thinking on it.”
She received two letters. One was a letter from Cluny, mailed at Moville, Ireland. The other was from Blackwood’s Publishing House, offering her a hundred and fifty pounds advance, and ten per cent royalty for her novel, or, if she preferred it, three hundred and fifty pounds for all rights. She went to the Domine with this letter, and he advised her to accept three hundred and fifty pounds for all rights. “You will be requiring bride-dresses, and house-napery of many kinds,” he said, “and, my dear girl, God has sent you this check. He knew you would have need of these things. You ought to be very happy in this thought.”
“I am, Sir. You know how ‘just enough’ has been my daily bread; and I was worrying a little about wedding garments, and expenses.”
“Well, Christine, of all life’s fare, God’s daily bread is best. Answer your letter here, and I will mail it for you. In a few days you will have plenty of money. Go at once, and put it in the bank.”
“I will, Sir. And when I get home, I will begin another book at once.”
“Go with the fish, until you have the money in your hand. Things unforeseen might happen to delay payment. Good Fortune does not like us to be too sure of her. I have seen her change her mind in that case.”
“You are always right, Sir. I will do as you say.”
“In three days you may expect the money. Do your work as if you were not expecting it. Miss nothing of your duty.”
So Christine went the second morning, and had extraordinary success. Among the “Quality Houses” they were watching for her. They had never before seen such fine, and such fresh fish. They would have no others. She went home with her little purse full of silver, and her heart singing within her. It was not, after all, so bad to be a fisher-girl. If it was all small money, it was all ready money. And the people who had known her mother had remembered her, and spoken kindly of her, and Christine loved them for it. She had not yet forgotten. Oh no! Many times in the day and night she cried softly, “Mither! Mither! Where are ye? Dinna forget Christine!”
On the third morning she had a little adventure. She was delaying, for she was waiting for the mail, and had taken a cup of tea with her mother’s old friend. She stood in the doorway talking, and Christine was on the sidewalk, at the foot of the steps. Her empty basket was at her feet. She stood beside it, and the sunshine fell all over her. Its searching light revealed nothing but a perfection of form, a loveliness of face, and a charm of manner, that defied all adverse criticism. She looked as the women of that elder world, who were the mothers of godlike heroes, must have looked.
Suddenly her friend ceased her conversation, and in a low hurried voice said,
“Here comes the young master, and his bride! Look at them.”
Then Christine turned her face to the street, and as she did so, a carriage passed slowly, and Angus Ballister looked at her with an unmistakable intention. It was a stern, contemptuous gaze, that shocked Christine. She could make no response but sheer amazement, and when the carriage had passed it required all her strength to say a steady “good-morning” to her friend, and hurry down the road homeward. Not then, and there, would she think of the insult. She put it passionately beneath the surface, until she reached her home, and had locked herself within its shelter. Then, she gave way utterly to her chagrin and sorrow, and wounded pride, and wept such bitter, cruel tears, as no other sorrow had ever caused her. She wept like a wounded child, who knows it has been cruelly treated, who comprehends the injustice of its pain and its own inability to defend itself, and finds no friend or helper in its suffering.
Finally, when perfectly exhausted, she fell asleep and slept till the sun set and the shadows of the night were on sea and land. Then she arose, washed her tear-stained face, and made her tea. In her sleep she had been counseled and comforted, and she looked at the circumstance now with clear eyes.
“I got just what I deserved,” she said bluntly to herself. “Why did I go to the fishing at all? I wasna sent there. God took me awa’ from the fishing, and showed me what to do, just as He took King David from the sheep-cotes, and made him a soldier. If David had feared and doubted, and gone back to the sheep-cotes, he wouldna hae been King o’ Israel. Weel, when God took the nets out o’ my hands, and told me to sing, I got feared singing and story-telling wouldna feed me, and I went back to the nets. Now then, Christine, thank God for the snubbing you got. Yesterday I knew money was coming, plenty o’ it. Why didn’t I sit still or go to the wark He wants me to do. Why? Weel, if I must tell the bottom truth, I rayther fancied mysel’ in my fisher dress. I was pleased wi’ the admiration I got baith frae the men and the women. Something else, Christine? Ay, my Conscience, if I be to tell all, I liked the gossip o’ the women – also the pride I had in my ain strength and beauty, and the power it gave me o’er baith men and women – ay, and I liked to mak’ the siller in my ain fingers, as it were – to say to folk, ‘here’s your fish,’ and then feel their siller in the palm o’ my hand. I was wrang. I was vera wrang. I wad be served as I deserve, if thae book people went back on their word.”
Just here the Domine and Jamie came, and the Domine had the letter with the money in it. Then he noticed that she had been crying, and he asked, “Who has been hurting you, Christine?” and she answered:
“Mysel’, Sir. I hae been hurting mysel’.” Then while he drank a cup of tea, she told him the little circumstance, which even yet made her draw her shoulders together, with a gasp of bitter chagrin.
“Christine, you will remember that I told you it was they who waited patiently on the Lord, who received His blessing. Are you satisfied now?”
“Oh, Sir! Do not ask me that question. You know I am satisfied.”
“Then put this money in the bank, and go to wark with all your mind, and all your soul. Being a woman you cannot preach, so God has chosen you for the pen of a ready writer. Say all that is given you to say, whether you get paid by the handicrafters, or not. God will see that you get your wages. Goodnight! You may let the bit Ballister affair slip out of your mind. The young man isn’t naturally bad. He is ashamed of himself by this time. No doubt of it.”
These things happened at the beginning of the herring season, and for two months Christine had a blessed interval of forgetfulness. Every man, woman and child, was busy about the fish. They had no time to think of the lonely girl, who had begun, and then suddenly abandoned the fishing – nobody knew what for. But they saw her in the kirk every Sabbath, apparently well and happy, and old Judith said she had nae doubt whatever that Cluny had forbidden her to hae any pairt in the clash and quarreling o’ the women folk in the herrin’ sheds, and why not? Cluny would be a full captain, wi’ all his trimmings on, when he came to Culraine next April for his wife, and was it likely he would be wanting his wife cryin’ feesh, and haggling wi’ dirty, clackin’ women, for a few bawbees? Christine was a lady born, she said, and her Cluny would set her among the quality where she belonged. Judith had no doubt whatever that Christine was obeying an order from Cluny, and Jessy Ruleson said she was glad the lass had found a master, she had always had too much o’ her ain ill way.
For nearly three months Christine lived a quiet, methodical life, undisturbed by any outside influence, and free from all care. She rose very early, finding creative writing always easiest before noon. She went to bed very early, knowing that the sleep before midnight is the renewing sleep, and she hemmed the day, night and morn, with prayer, to keep it from unraveling. All that could happen between these two prayers was provided for, and she gave herself heart and soul to the delightful toil of story-writing. She wrote as she felt. She used the dialect and idioms of her people when it was necessary, and no one checked her for it. It was her style, and style is the stamp of individual intellect, as language is the stamp of race. Certainly it is an habitual deviation from accuracy, but it is a deviation for the purpose of communicating freedom and feeling. The pen is neither grammar nor dictionary, its purpose is to be the interpreter of the heart.
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