CHAPTER IX: LONDON STREETS
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 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
"That's trowth, I'm thinkin'. We maun jist gi'e up an' confess
there's things abune a' human comprehension."
"Wha kens but that maybe 'cause i' their verra natur' they're ower
semple for cr'aturs like hiz 'at's made sae mixed-like, an' see
sae little intill 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 fisherman, 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 towards 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 learnt 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 endeavours
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 of 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 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 afterwards, 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 cratur', in sic
a whummle an' a rum'le an' a remish as this Lon'on, to ken 'at
there is sic a cave howkit 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 mean 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 recognised. 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 public house and inquired after lodgings.
They were directed to a woman in the neighbourhood, who kept a dingy
little curiosity shop. On payment of a week's rent in advance, she
allowed them a small bedroom. But Malcolm did not want Peter with
him that night; he wished to be 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 her
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 vapours 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 because 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 got 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 that so his
sister 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 before, 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, whom the
aspect of the man had suddenly rendered doubtful, 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.
He obeyed, and after a few inquiries, and the outlay of two
shillings, found himself in the pit of one of the largest of the