The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter IX
Leaving Davy to keep the sloop, the two fishermen went on shore. Passing from the narrow precincts of the river, they found themselves at once in the roar of London city. Stunned at first, then excited, then bewildered, then dazed, without any plan to guide their steps, they wandered about until, unused to the hard stones, their feet ached." It was a dull day in March. A keen wind blew round the corners of the streets. They wished themselves at sea again.
"Sic a sicht o' fowk!" said Blue Peter.
"It's hard to think," rejoined Malcolm, "what w'y the God 'at made them can luik efter them a' in sic a tumult. But they say even the sheep-dog kens ilk sheep i' the flock 'at's gien him in chairge."
"Ay, but ye see," said Blue Peter, "they're mair like a shoal o' herrin' nor a flock o' sheep."
"It's no the num'er o' them 'at plagues me," said Malcolm. "The gran' diffeeculty is hoo he can lat ilk ane tak his ain gait an' yet luik efter them a'. But gien he does 't, it stan's to rizzon it maun be in some w'y 'at them 'at's sae luikit efter canna by ony possibeelity un'erstan'."
"That's trowth, I'm thinkin'. We maun jist gie up, an' confess there's things abune a' human comprehension."
"Wha kens but that may be 'cause i' their verra natur they're ower semple for cr'atur's like hiz 'at's made sae mixed-like, an' sees sae little into the hert o' things?"
"Ye're ayont me there," said Blue Peter; and a silence followed.
It was a conversation very unsuitable to London streets, but then these were raw Scotch fishermen, who had not yet learned how absurd it is to suppose ourselves come from anything greater than ourselves, and had no conception of the liberty it confers on a man to know that he is the child of a protoplasm, or something still, more beautifully small.
At length a policeman directed them to a Scotch eating-house, where they fared after their country's fashions, and from the landlady gathered directions by which to guide themselves toward Curzon Street, a certain number in which Mr. Soutar had given Malcolm as Lady Bellair's address.
The door was opened to Malcolm's knock by a slatternly charwoman, who, unable to understand a word he said, would but for its fine frank expression have shut the door in his face. From the expression of hers, however, Malcolm suddenly remembered that he must speak English, and having a plentiful store of the book sort, he at once made himself intelligible in spite of tone and accent It was, however, only a shifting of the difficulty, for he now found it nearly impossible to understand her. But by repeated questioning and hard listening he learned at last that Lady Bellair had removed her establishment to Lady Lossie's house in Portland Place.
After many curious perplexities, odd blunders, and vain endeavors to understand shop-signs and notices in the windows; after they had again and again imagined themselves back at a place they had left miles away; after many a useless effort to lay hold upon directions given so rapidly that the very sense could not gather the sounds, — they at length stood not in Portland Place, but in front of Westminster Abbey. Inquiring what it was, and finding they could go in, they entered.
For some moments not a word was spoken between them, but when they had walked slowly about halfway up the nave, Malcolm turned and said, "Eh, Peter! sic a blessin'!" and Peter replied: "There canna be muckle o' this i' the warl'." Comparing impressions afterward. Peter said that the moment he stepped in he heard the rush of the tide on the rocks of Scaurnose, and Malcolm declared he felt as if he had stepped out of the world into the regions of eternal silence.
"What a mercy it maun be," he went on, "to mony a cr'atur', in sic a whummle an' a rum'le an' a remish as this Lon'on, to ken 'at there is sic a cave hoykit oot o' the din, 'at he can gang intill an' say his prayers intill! Man, Peter! I'm jist some feared whiles 'at the verra din i' my lugs mayna maist drive the thoucht o' God oot o' me."
At length they found their way into Regent Street, and leaving its mere assertion behind, reached the stately modesty of Portland Place; and Malcolm was pleased to think the house he sought was one of those he now saw.
It was one of the largest in the place. He would not, however, yield to the temptation to have a good look at it, for fear of attracting attention from its windows and being recognized. They turned, therefore, aside into some of the smaller thoroughfares lying between Portland Place and Great Portland Street, where, searching about, they came upon a decent-looking-house, and inquired after lodgings. They were directed to a woman in the neighborhood who kept a dingy little curiosity-shop. On payment of a week's rent in advance she allowed them to occupy a small double-bedded room. But Malcolm did not want Peter with him that night: he wished to feel perfectly free; and besides, it was more than desirable that Peter should go and look after the boat and the boy.
Left alone, he fell once more to his hitherto futile scheming. How was he to get near his sister? To the whitest of lies he had insuperable objection, and if he appeared before her with no reason to give, would she not be far too offended with his presumption to retain him in her service? And except he could be near her as a servant he did not see a chance of doing anything for her without disclosing facts which might make all such service as he would most gladly render her impossible, by causing her to hate the very sight of him. Plan after plan rose and passed from his mind rejected, and the only resolution he could come to was to write to Mr. Soutar, to whom he had committed the protection of Kelpie, to send her up by the first smack from Aberdeen. He did so, and wrote also to Miss Horn, telling her where he was: then went out and made his way back to Portland Place.
Night had closed in, and thick vapors hid the moon, but lamps and lighted windows illuminated the wide street. Presently it began to snow, but through the snow and the night went carriages in all directions, with great lamps that turned the flakes into white stars for a moment as they gleamed past. The hoofs of the horses echoed hard from the firm road. Could that house really belong to him? It did, yet he dared not enter it. That which was dear and precious to him was in the house, and just became of that he could not call it his own. There was less light in it than in any other within his range. He walked up and down the opposite side of the street its whole length some fifty times, but saw no sign of vitality about the house. At length a brougham stopped at the door, and a man got out and knocked. Malcolm instantly crossed, but could not see his face. The door opened, and he entered. The brougham waited. After about a quarter of an hour he came out again, accompanied by two ladies, one of whom he judged by her figure to be Florimel. They all get into the carriage, and Malcolm braced himself for a terrible run. But the coachman drove carefully: the snow lay a few inches deep, and he found no difficulty in keeping near them, following with fleet foot and husbanded breath. They stopped at the doors of a large dark-looking building in a narrow street. He thought it was a church, and wondered, from what he knew of his sister, that she should be going there on a week-night. Nor did the aspect of the entrance-hall, into which he followed them, undeceive him. It was more showy certainly, than the vestibule of any church he had ever been in, but what might not churches be in London? They went up a great flight of stairs — to reach the gallery, as he thought — and still he went after them. When he reached the top they were just vanishing round a curve, and his advance was checked: a man came up to him, said he could not come there, and gruffly requested him to show his ticket.
"I haven't got one. What is this place?" said Malcolm, mouthing his English with Scotch deliberation.
The man gave him a look of contemptuous surprise, and turning to another, who lounged behind him with his hands in his pockets, said, "Tom, here's a gentleman as wants to know where he is: can you tell him?"
The person addressed laughed, and gave Malcolm a queer look.
"Every cock crows on his own midden," said Malcolm, "but if I were on mine I would try to be civil."
"You go down there and pay for a pit-ticket, and you'll soon know where you are, mate," said Tom.
Malcolm went, and after a few inquiries and the outlay of two shillings found himself in the pit of one of the largest of the London theatres.