Christie, the King's Servant
Chapter 1: RUNSWICK BAY
by Mrs. O. F. Walton
May you enjoy this beautiful old story, which is no longer bound by copyright.
I was a young man then, just beginning to make my way as an artist. It is slow work at first; until you have made a name, everyone looks critically at your work. When once you have been pronounced a rising artist, every daub from your brush has a good market value. I had had much uphill work, but I loved my profession for its own sake....
It was an unusually hot summer, and London was emptying fast. Everyone who could afford it was going either to the moors or to the sea, and I felt very much inclined to follow their example. My father and mother had died when I was quite a child, and the maiden aunt who had brought me up had just passed away. I had mourned her death very deeply, for she had been both father and mother to me. I felt that I needed change of scene, for I had been up for many nights with her during her last illness, and I had had my rest broken for so long, that I found it very difficult to sleep, and in many ways I was far from well. My aunt had left all her little property to me, so that the means to leave London and to take a suitable vacation were not wanting. The question was, where should I go? I was anxious to combine, if possible, pleasure and business—that is to say, I wished to choose some quiet place where I could get bracing air and thorough change of scene, and where I could also find studies for my new picture, which was (at least, so I fondly dreamed) to find a place in the Academy the following spring.
It was while I was looking for a suitable spot that Tom Bernard, my great friend and confidant, found one for me.
“Jack, old fellow,” he said, thrusting a torn newspaper into my hand, “read that, old man.”
The newspaper was doubled down tightly, and a great red cross of Tom’s making showed me the part he wished me to read.
This charming seaside resort is not half so well known as it deserves to be. For the lover of the beautiful, for the man with an artistic eye, it possesses a charm which words would fail to describe. The little bay is a favorite resort for artists; they, at least, know how to appreciate its beauties. It would be well for any who may desire to visit this wonderfully picturesque and enchanting spot to secure hotel or lodging-house accommodation as early as possible, for the demand for rooms is, in August and September, far greater than the supply.
“Well, what do you think of it?” said Tom.
“It sounds just the thing,” I said. “Fresh air and plenty to paint.”
“Shall you go?”
“Yes, tomorrow,” I replied. “The sooner the better.”
My bag was soon packed, my easel and painting materials were collected, and the very next morning I was on my way into Yorkshire.
It was evening when I reached the end of my long, tiring railway journey; and when, hot and dusty, I alighted at a village which lay about two miles from my destination. I saw no sign of beauty as I walked from the station....
A family from York had come by the same train, and I had learnt from their conversation that they had engaged lodgings for a month at Runswick Bay. The children, two boys of ten and twelve, and a little fair-haired girl a year or two younger, were full of excitement on their arrival.
“Father, where is the sea?” they cried. “Oh, we do want to see the sea!”
“Run on,” said their father, “and you will soon see it.”
So we ran together, for I felt myself a child again as I watched them, and if ever I lagged behind, one or other of them would turn round and cry, “Come on, come on; we shall soon see it.”
Then, suddenly, we came to the edge of the high cliff, and the sea in all its beauty and loveliness burst upon us. The small bay was shut in by rocks on either side, and on the descent of the steep cliff was built the little fishing village. I think I have never seen a prettier place.
Chapter 2: LITTLE JOHN
After admiring the beauties of my new surroundings for some little time, I felt that I must begin to look for quarters. I was anxious, if possible, to find a lodging in one of the cottages, and then, after a good night’s rest, I would carefully select a good subject for my picture. I called at several houses, where I noticed a card in the window announcing “Apartments for Rent,” but I met the same answer everywhere, “Full, sir, quite full.” In one place I was offered a bed in the kitchen, but the whole place smelt so strongly of fried herrings and of fish oil, that I felt it would be far more pleasant to sleep on the beach than to attempt to do so in that close and unwholesome atmosphere.
After wandering up and down for some time, I passed a house close to the village green, and saw the children with whom I had travelled sitting at tea close to the open window. They, too, were eating herrings, and the smell made me hungry. I began to feel that it was time I had something to eat, and I thought my best plan would be to retrace my steps to the hotel which I had passed on my way, and which stood at the very top of the high cliff. I turned a little lazy when I thought of the climb, for I was tired with my journey, and, as I said before, I was not very strong. To drag my bag and easel up the rugged ascent would require a mighty effort at the best of times. I noticed that wooden benches had been placed here and there on the different platforms of the rock, for the convenience of the fishermen, and I determined to rest for a quarter of an hour on one of them before retracing my steps up the steep hill to the hotel. The fishermen were filling most of the seats, sitting side by side, row after row of them, talking together, and looking down at the beach below. As I gazed up at them, they looked to me like so many blue birds perched on the steep rock.
There was one seat in a quiet corner which I noticed was empty. I went to it, and laying my knapsack and other belongings beside me, I sat down to rest.
But I was not long to remain alone. A minute afterwards a young fisherman, dressed like his mates in blue jersey and oilskin cap, planted himself on the other end of the seat which I had selected.
“Good day, sir,” he said. “What do you think of our bay?”
“It’s a pretty place, very pretty,” I said. “I like it well enough now, but I daresay I shall like it better still tomorrow.”
“Better still tomorrow,” he repeated. “Well, it is the better for knowing, in my opinion, sir, and I ought to know, if anyone should, for I’ve lived my lifetime here.”
I turned to look at him as he spoke, and I felt at once that I had come across one of Nature’s gentlemen. He was a fine specimen of an honest English fisherman, with dark eyes and hair, and with a sunny smile on his weather-beaten, sunburnt face. You had only to look at the man to feel sure that you could trust him, and that, like Nathanael, there was no guile in him.
“I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “I want to find a room here if I can, but every place seems so full.”
“Yes, it is full, sir, in August; that’s the main time here. Let me see, there’s Brown’s, they’re full, and Robinson’s, and Wilson’s, and Thomson’s, all full up. There’s Giles’, they have a room, I believe, but they’re not over clean; maybe you’re particular, sir.”
“Well,” I said, “I do like things clean. I don’t mind how rough they are if they’re only clean.”
“Ah,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “You wouldn’t care for one pan to do all the work of the house—to boil the dirty clothes, and the fish, and your bit of pudding for dinner, and not overmuch cleaning of it in between.”
“No,” I said, laughing. “I should not like that, certainly.”
“Might give the pudding a flavor of stockings, and a sauce of fish oil,” he answered. “Well, you’re right, sir; I shouldn’t like it myself. Cleanliness is next to godliness, that’s my idea. Well, then, that being as it is, I wouldn’t go to Giles’, not if them is your sentiments with regard to pans, sir.”
“Then I suppose there’s nothing for it but to trudge up to the hotel at the top of the hill,” I said, with something of a groan.
“Well, sir,” he said, hesitating a little, “me and my missus, we have a room as we rents sometimes, but it’s a poor place, sir, homely like, as ye may say. Maybe you wouldn’t put up with it.”
“Would you let me see it?” I asked.
“With pleasure, sir. It’s rough, but it’s clean. We could promise you a clean pan, sir. My missus she’s a good one for cleaning. She’s not one of them slatternly, good-for-nothing lasses. There’s heaps of them here, sir, idling away their time. She’s a good girl is my Polly. Why, if that isn’t little John a-clambering up the steps to his daddy!”
He jumped up as he said this, and ran quickly down the steep flight of steps which led down from the height on which the seat was placed, and soon returned with a little lad about two years old in his arms.
The child was as fair as his father was dark. He was a pretty boy with light hair and blue eyes, and was tidily dressed in a bright red cap and clean white pinafore.
“Tea’s ready, Daddy,” said the boy. “Come home with little John.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t object to a cup o’ tea, sir,” said the father, turning to me. “It’ll hearten you up a bit after your journey, and there’s sure to be herrings. We almost lives on herrings here, sir, and then, if you’re so minded, you can look at the room after. Ye’ll excuse me if I make too bold, sir,” he added, as he gently patted little John’s tiny hand, which rested on his arm.
“I shall be only too glad to come,” I said. “I am very hungry, and if Polly’s room is as nice as I think it will be, it will be just the place for me.”
He walked in front of me, up and down several flights of steps, until, at some little distance lower down the hill, he stopped before a small cottage. Sure enough there were herrings, frying and spluttering on the fire, and there, too, was Polly herself, arrayed in a clean white apron, and turning the herrings with a fork. The kitchen was very low, and the rafters seemed resting on my head as I entered. But the window and door were both wide open, and the whole place struck me as being wonderfully sweet and clean. A low wooden settle stood by the fire, one or two plain deal chairs by the wall, and little John’s three-legged stool was placed close to his father’s armchair. A small shelf above the fireplace held the family library. I noticed a Bible, a hymnbook, a Pilgrim’s Progress, and several other books, all of which had seen their best days and were doubtless in constant use. On the walls were prints in wooden frames and much discolored by the turf smoke of the fire. Upon a carved old oak cupboard, which held the clothes of the family, were arranged various rare shells and stones, curious sea urchins and other treasures of the sea, and in the center, the chief ornament of the house and the pride of Polly’s heart, a ship, carved and rigged by Duncan himself, and preserved carefully under a glass shade.
Polly gave me a hearty Yorkshire welcome, and we soon gathered about the small round table. Duncan, with little John on his knee, asked a blessing, and Polly poured out the tea, and we all did justice to the meal.
The more I saw of these honest people, the more I liked them and felt inclined to trust them. When tea was over, Polly took me to see the guest chamber in which her husband had offered me a bed. It was a low room in the roof, containing a plain wooden bedstead, one chair, a small washstand, and a square of mirror hanging on the wall. There was no other furniture—indeed, there was room for no other—and the room was unadorned except by three or four funeral cards in dismal black frames, which were hanging at different heights on the wall opposite the bed. But the square casement window was thrown wide open, and the pure sea air filled the little room, and the coarse white coverings of the bed were spotless. Indeed, the whole place looked and felt both fresh and clean.
“You’ll pardon me, sir,” said Duncan, “for asking you to look at such a poor place.”
“But I like it, Duncan,” I answered, “and I like you, and I like your wife, and if you will have me as a lodger, I am willing and glad to stay.”
The terms were soon agreed upon to the satisfaction of both parties, and then all things being settled, Polly went to put little John to bed while I went with Duncan to see his boat.
It was an old boat, and it had been his father’s before him, and it had weathered many a storm. But it was the dream of Duncan’s life to buy a new one, and he and Polly had nearly saved up money enough for it.
“That’s why me and the missus is glad to get a lodger now and again,” he said. “It all goes to the boat, every penny of it. We mean to call her The Little John. He’s going in her the very first voyage she takes. He is indeed, sir, for he’ll be her captain one day, please God, little John will.”
It was a calm, beautiful evening; the sea was like a sheet of glass. Hardly a ripple was breaking on the shore. The sun was setting behind the cliff, and the fishing village would soon be in darkness. The fishermen were leaving their cottages and were making for the shore. Already some of the boats were launched, and the men were throwing in their nets and fishing-tackle, and were pulling out to sea. I enjoyed watching my new friend making his preparations. His three mates brought out the nets, and he gave his orders with a tone of command. He was the owner and the captain of the Mary Ann, and the rest were accustomed to do his bidding.
When all were on board, Duncan himself jumped in and gave the word to push from shore. He nodded to me and bid me goodnight, and when he was a little way from shore, I saw him stand up in the boat and wave his oilskin cap to someone above me on the cliff.
I looked up, and saw Polly standing on the rock overhanging the shore with little John in his white nightgown in her arms. He was waving his red cap to his father, and continued to do so till the boat was out of sight.
Chapter 3: Strange Music
I slept well in my strange little bedroom, although I was awakened early by the sunlight streaming in at the window. I jumped up and looked out. The sun was rising over the sea, and a flood of golden light was streaming across it.
I dressed quickly and went out. Very few people were about, for the fishermen had not yet returned from their night’s fishing. The cliff looked even more beautiful than the night before, for every bit of coloring stood out clear and distinct in the sunshine. “I shall get my best effects in the morning,” I said to myself, “and I had better choose my subject at once, so that after breakfast I may be able to begin without delay.”
How many steps I went up, and how many I went down, before I came to a decision, it would be impossible to tell; but at last I found a place which seemed to me to be the very gem of the whole village. An old disused boat stood in the foreground, and over this a large fishing net, covered with floats, was spread to dry. Behind rose the rocks, covered with tufts of grass, patches of gorse, tall yellow mustard plants and golden ragwort, and at the top of a steep flight of rock-hewn steps stood a white cottage with red-tiled roof, the little garden in front of it gay with hollyhocks and dahlias. A group of barefooted children were standing by the gate feeding some chickens and ducks, a large dog was lying asleep at the top of the steps, and a black cat was basking in the morning sunshine on the low garden wall. It was, to my mind, an extremely pretty scene, and it made me long to be busy with my brush.
I hurried back to my lodging, and found Polly preparing my breakfast, while little John looked on. He was sitting in his nightgown, curled up in his father’s armchair. “I’m Daddy,” he called out to me as I came in.
There was a little round table laid ready for me, and covered with a spotlessly clean cloth, and on it was a small black teapot, and a white and gold cup and saucer, upon which I saw the golden announcement, “A present from Whitby,” while my plate was adorned with a remarkable picture of Whitby Abbey in a thunderstorm.
There were herrings, of course, and Polly had made some pancakes, the like of which are never seen outside Yorkshire. These were ready buttered, and were lying wrapped in a clean cloth in front of the fire. Polly made the tea as soon as I entered, and then retired with little John in her arms into the bedroom, while I sat down with a good appetite to my breakfast.
I had not quite finished my meal when I heard a great shout from the shore. Women and children, lads and lasses, ran past the open door, crying, “The boats! the boats!” Polly came flying into the kitchen, caught up little John’s red cap, thrust it on his head, and ran down the steps. I left my breakfast unfinished, and followed them.
It was a pretty sight. The fishing boats were just nearing shore, and almost everyone in the place had turned out to meet them.
Wives, children, and visitors were gathered on the small landing place. Most had dishes or plates in their hands, for the herrings could be bought straight from the boats. The family from York were there, and they greeted me as an old friend.
When the little village had been abundantly supplied with fish, the rest of the herrings were packed up and sent off by train to be sold elsewhere. It was a pretty animated scene, and I wished I had brought my sketchbook with me. I thought the arrival of the fishing boats would make a splendid subject for a picture.
Duncan was too busy even to see me till the fish were all landed, counted, and disposed of, but he had time for a word with little John, and as I was finishing my breakfast he came in with the child perched on his shoulder.
“Good morning, sir,” he said. “And how do you like our bay this morning?”
My answer fully satisfied him, and while he sat down to his morning meal I went out to begin my work. It was a lovely day, and I thoroughly enjoyed the prospect before me. I found a shady place just under the wall of a house, where my picture would be in sunlight and I and my easel in shadow. I liked the spot I had chosen even better than I had done before breakfast, and I was soon hard at work.
I had sketched in my picture, and was beginning to paint, when I became conscious of the sound of voices just over my head, and I soon became equally conscious that they were talking about me.
“It’s just like it,” said one voice. “Look—do look. There’s Betty Green’s cottage, and Minnie the cat, and the seat, and the old boat.”
“Let me see, Marjorie,” said another voice. “Is it the old one with white hair and a long, long beard?”
“No, it’s quite a young one. His hair’s black, and he hasn’t got a beard at all.”
“Let me look. Yes, I can see him. I like him much better than the old one. Hasn’t he got nice red cheeks?”
“Hush! he’ll hear,” said the other voice. “You naughty boy! I believe he did hear; I saw him laugh.”
I jumped up at this, and looked up, but I could see nothing but a garden wall and a thick bushy tree, which was growing just inside it.
“Hello, who’s there?” I called.
But there was dead silence. As no one appeared, and nothing more happened, I sat down and went on with my picture.
Many people passed by as I was painting, and tried to look at what I was doing. Some glanced out of the corners of their eyes as they walked on; others paused behind me and silently watched me; a few made remarks to one another about my picture. One or two offered suggestions; they thought I should have had a better view lower down the hill, or hoped that I would make the coloring vivid enough. The children with whom I had traveled seemed to feel a kind of partnership in my picture.
“Let’s go and look at our artist,” Bob would say to Harry. “His picture is going to be the best of the lot.”
They were so fond of watching me, and so much excited over what I was doing, that, as time went on, I was often obliged to ask them to move further away, so eager were they to watch every movement of my brush.
I thoroughly enjoyed my morning’s work that first day, and went back very hungry, and quite ready for the comfortable little dinner which Polly had prepared for me. In the afternoon the light would be all wrong for my picture. But I determined to sketch in the foreground, and prepare for my next morning’s work.
I was very busy upon this, when suddenly I became conscious of music, if music it could be called. It was the most peculiar sound, and at first I could not find out from whence it came. It was evidently not caused by a wind instrument. I felt sure it was not a concertina or an accordion. This sound would go on for a minute or two, and then stop suddenly, only to begin again more loudly a few seconds later. At times I distinguished a few bars of a tune, then only disjointed notes followed. Could it be a child strumming idly on a harmonium? But no, it was not at all like an instrument of that kind. It was an annoying, worrying sound, and it went on for so long that I began to be vexed with it, and stamped my foot impatiently when, after a short interval, I heard it begin again. The sound seemed to come from behind the garden wall of the house near which I was sitting, and it was repeated from time to time during the whole of the afternoon.
At length, as the afternoon went on, I began to distinguish what tunes were being attempted. I made out a bar or two of the old French Republican air, “The Marseillaise,” and then I was almost startled by what came next, for it was a tune I had known well since I was a very little child. It was “Home, Sweet Home,” and that was my mother’s favorite tune. In fact, I never heard it without thinking of her. Many and many a time had she sung me to sleep with that tune. I had scarlet fever when I was five years old, and my mother had nursed me through it, and when I was weary and fretful she would sing to me—my pretty fair-haired mother. Even as I sat before my easel I could see her, as she sat at the foot of my bed, with the sunshine streaming upon her through the half-darkened window, and making her look, to my boyish imagination, like a beautiful angel. And I could hear her voice still, and the sweet tones in which she sang that very song to me, “Home, sweet home, there’s no place like home.”
I remembered one night especially, in which she knelt by my bed and prayed that she might meet her boy in the bright city, the sweet home above the sky which was the best and brightest home of all. I wonder what she would think of me now, I said to myself, and whether she ever will see me there. I very much doubt it; it seemed to me that I was a long way off from Home, Sweet Home now.
My mother had died soon after that illness of mine, and I knew that she had gone to live in that beautiful home of which she had so often spoken to me. And I had been left behind, and my aunt, who had brought me up, had cared for none of these things. I had learned to look at the world and at life from her worldly standpoint, and had forgotten to seek first the Kingdom of God. Oh! if my mother only knew, my pretty, beautiful mother, I said to myself that day. And then there came the thought, perhaps she does know, and the thought made me very uncomfortable. I wished, more than ever, that that cracked old instrument, whatever it was, would stop.
But, in spite of all my wishes, the strange sound went on, and again and again I had to listen to “Home, Sweet Home,” and each time that it came it set my memory going, and brought back to me the words and the looks which I thought I had forgotten. And it set something else going too—the still, small voice within, accusing me of forgetfulness, not so much of my mother as of my mother’s God.
I began to wish most heartily that I had chosen some other spot for my picture. But it was working out so well that I felt it would be a great mistake to change, and I hoped that the individual, man, woman, or child, who had been making that horrible noise might find some other employment tomorrow, and might leave me in peace.
The next day my wishes were fulfilled, for I was not disturbed, and very little happened except that my picture made progress. Then came two wet days, on which I had to paint in my little chamber, and did not get back to my seat under the wall.
I saw a good deal of Duncan during those wet days. He would come and sit beside me as I painted, and would tell me stories of storms and shipwrecks, and of the different times when the lifeboat had been sent out, and of the many lives she had saved.
“Have ye seen her, sir? You must go and have a look at our boat. She lies in a house down by the shore, as trim and tight a little boat as you could wish to see anywhere!”
“I suppose you’ve been in many a storm yourself, Duncan,” I said.
“Storms, sir! I’ve very near lived in them ever since I was born. Many and many’s the time I’ve never expected to see land again. I didn’t care so much when I was a young chap. You see, my father and mother were dead, and if I went to the bottom there was nobody, as you might say, to feel it. But it’s different now, sir, you see.”
“Yes,” I said, “there’s Polly and little John.”
“That’s just where it is, sir, Polly and little John, bless ’em; and all the time the wind’s raging, and the waves is coming right over the boat, I’m thinking of my poor lass at home, and how every gust of wind will be sweeping right over her heart, and how she’ll be kneeling by little John’s bed, praying God to bring his daddy safe home again. And I know, sir, as well as I know anything, that when God Almighty hears and answers her prayer, and brings me safe to land, Polly and little John will be standing on yon rocks a-straining their eyes for the first sight of the boats, and then a-running down almost into the water to welcome me home again. Yes, it makes a sight o’ difference to a married man, sir; doesn’t it, now? It isn’t the dying, ye understand, it’s the leaving behind as I think of. I’m not afraid to die,” he added humbly and reverently, as he took off his oilskin cap. “ ‘I know whom I have believed.’* (II Timothy 1:12)”
“You’re a plucky fellow, Duncan,” I said, “to talk of not being afraid to die. I’ve just been at a death-bed, and—”
“And you felt you wouldn’t like to be there yourself,” Duncan went on, as I stopped. “Well, maybe not; it comes nat’ral to us, sir. We’re born with that feeling, I often think, and we can no more help it than we can help any other thing we’re born with. But what I mean to say is, I’m not afraid of what comes after death. It may be a dark tunnel, sir, but there’s light at the far end!”
Next: Chapter 4: What are you?
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