ST. Ives

Page 108

I gathered she had all her life been depressed by a series of bereavements, the last of which might very well have befallen her the day before; and I instinctively lowered my voice when I addressed her. She admitted she had rooms to let--even showed them to us--a sitting-room and bedroom in a suite, commanding a fine prospect to the Firth and Fifeshire, and in themselves well proportioned and comfortably furnished, with pictures on the wall, shells on the mantelpiece, and several books upon the table which I found afterwards to be all of a devotional character, and all presentation copies, 'to my Christian friend,' or 'to my devout acquaintance in the Lord, Bethiah McRankine.' Beyond this my 'Christian friend' could not be made to advance: no, not even to do that which seemed the most natural and pleasing thing in the world--I mean to name her price--but stood before us shaking her head, and at times mourning like the dove, the picture of depression and defence. She had a voice the most querulous I have ever heard, and with this she produced a whole regiment of difficulties and criticisms.

She could not promise an attendance.

'Well, madam,' said I, 'and what is my servant for?'

'Him?' she asked. 'Be gude to us! Is HE your servant?'

'I am sorry, ma'am, he meets with your disapproval.'

'Na, I never said that. But he's young. He'll be a great breaker, I'm thinkin'. Ay! he'll be a great responsibeelity to ye, like. Does he attend to his releegion?'

'Yes, m'm,' returned Rowley, with admirable promptitude, and, immediately closing his eyes, as if from habit, repeated the following distich with more celerity than fervour:-

'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Bless the bed that I lie on!'

'Nhm!' said the lady, and maintained an awful silence.

'Well, ma'am,' said I, 'it seems we are never to hear the beginning of your terms, let alone the end of them. Come--a good movement! and let us be either off or on.'

She opened her lips slowly. 'Ony raferences?' she inquired, in a voice like a bell.

I opened my pocket-book and showed her a handful of bank bills. 'I think, madam, that these are unexceptionable,' said I.

'Ye'll be wantin' breakfast late?' was her reply.

'Madam, we want breakfast at whatever hour it suits you to give it, from four in the morning till four in the afternoon!' I cried. 'Only tell us your figure, if your mouth be large enough to let it out!'

'I couldnae give ye supper the nicht,' came the echo.

'We shall go out to supper, you incorrigible female!' I vowed, between laughter and tears. 'Here--this is going to end! I want you for a landlady--let me tell you that!--and I am going to have my way. You won't tell me what you charge? Very well; I will do without! I can trust you! You don't seem to know when you have a good lodger; but I know perfectly when I have an honest landlady! Rowley, unstrap the valises!'

Will it be credited? The monomaniac fell to rating me for my indiscretion! But the battle was over; these were her last guns, and more in the nature of a salute than of renewed hostilities. And presently she condescended on very moderate terms, and Rowley and I were able to escape in quest of supper. Much time had, however, been lost; the sun was long down, the lamps glimmered along the streets, and the voice of a watchman already resounded in the neighbouring Leith Road. On our first arrival I had observed a place of entertainment not far off, in a street behind the Register House. Thither we found our way, and sat down to a late dinner alone. But we had scarce given our orders before the door opened, and a tall young fellow entered with something of a lurch, looked about him, and approached the same table.

'Give you good evening, most grave and reverend seniors!' said he. 'Will you permit a wanderer, a pilgrim--the pilgrim of love, in short--to come to temporary anchor under your lee? I care not who knows it, but I have a passionate aversion from the bestial practice of solitary feeding!'

'You are welcome, sir,' said I, 'if I may take upon me so far to play the host in a public place.'

He looked startled, and fixed a hazy eye on me, as he sat down.

ST. Ives Page 109

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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