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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    RANDOM MEMORIES

    I. - THE COAST OF FIFE

    MANY writers have vigorously described the pains of the first day
    or the first night at school; to a boy of any enterprise, I
    believe, they are more often agreeably exciting. Misery - or at
    least misery unrelieved - is confined to another period, to the
    days of suspense and the "dreadful looking-for" of departure; when
    the old life is running to an end, and the new life, with its new
    interests, not yet begun: and to the pain of an imminent parting,
    there is added the unrest of a state of conscious pre-existence.
    The area railings, the beloved shop-window, the smell of semi-
    suburban tanpits, the song of the church bells upon a Sunday, the
    thin, high voices of compatriot children in a playing-field - what
    a sudden, what an overpowering pathos breathes to him from each
    familiar circumstance! The assaults of sorrow come not from
    within, as it seems to him, but from without. I was proud and glad
    to go to school; had I been let alone, I could have borne up like
    any hero; but there was around me, in all my native town, a
    conspiracy of lamentation: "Poor little boy, he is going away -
    unkind little boy, he is going to leave us"; so the unspoken
    burthen followed me as I went, with yearning and reproach. And at
    length, one melancholy afternoon in the early autumn, and at a
    place where it seems to me, looking back, it must be always autumn
    and generally Sunday, there came suddenly upon the face of all I
    saw - the long empty road, the lines of the tall houses, the church
    upon the hill, the woody hillside garden - a look of such a
    piercing sadness that my heart died; and seating myself on a door-
    step, I shed tears of miserable sympathy. A benevolent cat
    cumbered me the while with consolations - we two were alone in all
    that was visible of the London Road: two poor waifs who had each
    tasted sorrow - and she fawned upon the weeper, and gambolled for
    his entertainment, watching the effect it seemed, with motherly
    eyes.

    For the sake of the cat, God bless her! I confessed at home the
    story of my weakness; and so it comes about that I owed a certain
    journey, and the reader owes the present paper, to a cat in the
    London Road. It was judged, if I had thus brimmed over on the
    public highway, some change of scene was (in the medical sense)
    indicated; my father at the time was visiting the harbour lights of
    Scotland; and it was decided he should take me along with him
    around a portion of the shores of Fife; my first professional tour,
    my first journey in the complete character of man, without the help
    of petticoats.

    The Kingdom of Fife (that royal province) may be observed by the
    curious on the map, occupying a tongue of land between the firths
    of Forth and Tay. It may be continually seen from many parts of
    Edinburgh (among the rest, from the windows of my father's house)
    dying away into the distance and the easterly HAAR with one smoky
    seaside town beyond another, or in winter printing on the gray
    heaven some glittering hill-tops. It has no beauty to recommend
    it, being a low, sea-salted, wind-vexed promontory; trees very
    rare, except (as common on the east coast) along the dens of
    rivers; the fields well cultivated, I understand, but not lovely to
    the eye. It is of the coast I speak: the interior may be the
    garden of Eden. History broods over that part of the world like
    the easterly HAAR. Even on the map, its long row of Gaelic place-
    names bear testimony to an old and settled race. Of these little
    towns, posted along the shore as close as sedges, each with its bit
    of harbour, its old weather-beaten church or public building, its
    flavour of decayed prosperity and decaying fish, not one but has
    its legend, quaint or tragic: Dunfermline, in whose royal towers
    the king may be still observed (in the ballad) drinking the blood-
    red wine; somnolent Inverkeithing, once the quarantine of Leith;
    Aberdour, hard by the monastic islet of Inchcolm, hard by
    Donibristle where the "bonny face was spoiled"; Burntisland where,
    when Paul Jones was off the coast, the Reverend Mr. Shirra had a
    table carried between tidemarks, and publicly prayed against the
    rover at the pitch of his voice and his broad lowland dialect;
    Kinghorn, where Alexander "brak's neckbane" and left Scotland to
    the English wars; Kirkcaldy, where the witches once prevailed
    extremely and sank tall ships and honest mariners in the North Sea;
    Dysart, famous - well famous at least to me for the Dutch ships
    that lay in its harbour, painted like toys and with pots of flowers
    and cages of song-birds in the cabin windows, and for one
    particular Dutch skipper who would sit all day in slippers on the
    break of the poop, smoking a long German pipe; Wemyss (pronounce
    Weems) with its bat-haunted caves, where the Chevalier Johnstone,
    on his flight from Culloden, passed a night of superstitious
    terrors; Leven, a bald, quite modern place, sacred to summer
    visitors, whence there has gone but yesterday the tall figure and
    the white locks of the last Englishman in Delhi, my uncle Dr.
    Balfour, who was still walking his hospital rounds, while the
    troopers from Meerut clattered and cried "Deen Deen" along the
    streets of the imperial city, and Willoughby mustered his handful
    of heroes at the magazine, and the nameless brave one in the
    telegraph office was perhaps already fingering his last despatch;
    and just a little beyond Leven, Largo Law and the smoke of Largo
    town mounting about its feet, the town of Alexander Selkirk, better
    known under the name of Robinson Crusoe. So on, the list might be
    pursued (only for private reasons, which the reader will shortly
    have an opportunity to guess) by St. Monance, and Pittenweem, and
    the two Anstruthers, and Cellardyke, and Crail, where Primate
    Sharpe was once a humble and innocent country minister: on to the
    heel of the land, to Fife Ness, overlooked by a sea-wood of matted
    elders and the quaint old mansion of Balcomie, itself overlooking
    but the breach or the quiescence of the deep - the Carr Rock beacon
    rising close in front, and as night draws in, the star of the
    Inchcape reef springing up on the one hand, and the star of the May
    Island on the other, and farther off yet a third and a greater on
    the craggy foreland of St. Abb's. And but a little way round the
    corner of the land, imminent itself above the sea, stands the gem
    of the province and the light of mediaeval Scotland, St. Andrews,
    where the great Cardinal Beaton held garrison against the world,
    and the second of the name and title perished (as you may read in
    Knox's jeering narrative) under the knives of true-blue
    Protestants, and to this day (after so many centuries) the current
    voice of the professor is not hushed.

    Here it was that my first tour of inspection began, early on a
    bleak easterly morning. There was a crashing run of sea upon the
    shore, I recollect, and my father and the man of the harbour light
    must sometimes raise their voices to be audible. Perhaps it is
    from this circumstance, that I always imagine St. Andrews to be an
    ineffectual seat of learning, and the sound of the east wind and
    the bursting surf to linger in its drowsy classrooms and confound
    the utterance of the professor, until teacher and taught are alike
    drowned in oblivion, and only the sea-gull beats on the windows and
    the draught of the sea-air rustles in the pages of the open
    lecture. But upon all this, and the romance of St. Andrews in
    general, the reader must consult the works of Mr. Andrew Lang; who
    has written of it but the other day in his dainty prose and with
    his incommunicable humour, and long ago in one of his best poems,
    with grace, and local truth, and a note of unaffected pathos. Mr.
    Lang knows all about the romance, I say, and the educational
    advantages, but I doubt if he had turned his attention to the
    harbour lights; and it may be news even to him, that in the year
    1863 their case was pitiable. Hanging about with the east wind
    humming in my teeth, and my hands (I make no doubt) in my pockets,
    I looked for the first time upon that tragi-comedy of the visiting
    engineer which I have seen so often re-enacted on a more important
    stage. Eighty years ago, I find my grandfather writing: "It is
    the most painful thing that can occur to me to have a
    correspondence of this kind with any of the keepers, and when I
    come to the Light House, instead of having the satisfaction to meet
    them with approbation and welcome their Family, it is distressing
    when one-is obliged to put on a most angry countenance and
    demeanour." This painful obligation has been hereditary in my
    race. I have myself, on a perfectly amateur and unauthorised
    inspection of Turnberry Point, bent my brows upon the keeper on the
    question of storm-panes; and felt a keen pang of self-reproach,
    when we went down stairs again and I found he was making a coffin
    for his infant child; and then regained my equanimity with the
    thought that I had done the man a service, and when the proper
    inspector came, he would be readier with his panes. The human race
    is perhaps credited with more duplicity than it deserves. The
    visitation of a lighthouse at least is a business of the most
    transparent nature. As soon as the boat grates on the shore, and
    the keepers step forward in their uniformed coats, the very slouch
    of the fellows' shoulders tells their story, and the engineer may
    begin at once to assume his "angry countenance." Certainly the
    brass of the handrail will be clouded; and if the brass be not
    immaculate, certainly all will be to match - the reflectors
    scratched, the spare lamp unready, the storm-panes in the
    storehouse. If a light is not rather more than middling good, it
    will be radically bad. Mediocrity (except in literature) appears
    to be unattainable by man. But of course the unfortunate of St.
    Andrews was only an amateur, he was not in the Service, he had no
    uniform coat, he was (I believe) a plumber by his trade and stood
    (in the mediaeval phrase) quite out of the danger of my father; but
    he had a painful interview for all that, and perspired extremely.

    From St. Andrews, we drove over Magus Muir. My father had
    announced we were "to post," and the phrase called up in my hopeful
    mind visions of top-boots and the pictures in Rowlandson's DANCE OF
    DEATH; but it was only a jingling cab that came to the inn door,
    such as I had driven in a thousand times at the low price of one
    shilling on the streets of Edinburgh. Beyond this disappointment,
    I remember nothing of that drive. It is a road I have often
    travelled, and of not one of these journeys do I remember any
    single trait. The fact has not been suffered to encroach on the
    truth of the imagination. I still see Magus Muir two hundred years
    ago; a desert place, quite uninclosed; in the midst, the primate's
    carriage fleeing at the gallop; the assassins loose-reined in
    pursuit, Burley Balfour, pistol in hand, among the first. No scene
    of history has ever written itself so deeply on my mind; not
    because Balfour, that questionable zealot, was an ancestral cousin
    of my own; not because of the pleadings of the victim and his
    daughter; not even because of the live bum-bee that flew out of
    Sharpe's 'bacco-box, thus clearly indicating his complicity with
    Satan; nor merely because, as it was after all a crime of a fine
    religious flavour, it figured in Sunday books and afforded a
    grateful relief from MINISTERING CHILDREN or the MEMOIRS OF MRS.
    KATHATINE WINSLOWE. The figure that always fixed my attention is
    that of Hackston of Rathillet, sitting in the saddle with his cloak
    about his mouth, and through all that long, bungling, vociferous
    hurly-burly, revolving privately a case of conscience. He would
    take no hand in the deed, because he had a private spite against
    the victim, and "that action" must be sullied with no suggestion of
    a worldly motive; on the other hand, "that action," in itself, was
    highly justified, he had cast in his lot with "the actors," and he
    must stay there, inactive but publicly sharing the responsibility.
    "You are a gentleman - you will protect me!" cried the wounded old
    man, crawling towards him. "I will never lay a hand on you," said
    Hackston, and put his cloak about his mouth. It is an old
    temptation with me, to pluck away that cloak and see the face - to
    open that bosom and to read the heart. With incomplete romances
    about Hackston, the drawers of my youth were lumbered. I read him
    up in every printed book that I could lay my hands on. I even dug
    among the Wodrow manuscripts, sitting shame-faced in the very room
    where my hero had been tortured two centuries before, and keenly
    conscious of my youth in the midst of other and (as I fondly
    thought) more gifted students. All was vain: that he had passed a
    riotous nonage, that he was a zealot, that he twice displayed
    (compared with his grotesque companions) some tincture of soldierly
    resolution and even of military common sense, and that he figured
    memorably in the scene on Magus Muir, so much and no more could I
    make out. But whenever I cast my eyes backward, it is to see him
    like a landmark on the plains of history, sitting with his cloak
    about his mouth, inscrutable. How small a thing creates an
    immortality! I do not think he can have been a man entirely
    commonplace; but had he not thrown his cloak about his mouth, or
    had the witnesses forgot to chronicle the action, he would not thus
    have haunted the imagination of my boyhood, and to-day he would
    scarce delay me for a paragraph. An incident, at once romantic and
    dramatic, which at once awakes the judgment and makes a picture for
    the eye, how little do we realise its perdurable power! Perhaps no
    one does so but the author, just as none but he appreciates the
    influence of jingling words; so that he looks on upon life, with
    something of a covert smile, seeing people led by what they fancy
    to be thoughts and what are really the accustomed artifices of his
    own trade, or roused by what they take to be principles and are
    really picturesque effects. In a pleasant book about a school-
    class club, Colonel Fergusson has recently told a little anecdote.
    A "Philosophical Society" was formed by some Academy boys - among
    them, Colonel Fergusson himself, Fleeming Jenkin, and Andrew
    Wilson, the Christian Buddhist and author of THE ABODE OF SNOW.
    Before these learned pundits, one member laid the following
    ingenious problem: "What would be the result of putting a pound of
    potassium in a pot of porter?" "I should think there would be a
    number of interesting bi-products," said a smatterer at my elbow;
    but for me the tale itself has a bi-product, and stands as a type
    of much that is most human. For this inquirer who conceived
    himself to burn with a zeal entirely chemical, was really immersed
    in a design of a quite different nature; unconsciously to his own
    recently breeched intelligence, he was engaged in literature.
    Putting, pound, potassium, pot, porter; initial p, mediant t - that
    was his idea, poor little boy! So with politics and that which
    excites men in the present, so with history and that which rouses
    them in the past: there lie at the root of what appears, most
    serious unsuspected elements.

    The triple town of Anstruther Wester, Anstruther Easter, and
    Cellardyke, all three Royal Burghs - or two Royal Burghs and a less
    distinguished suburb, I forget which - lies continuously along the
    seaside, and boasts of either two or three separate parish
    churches, and either two or three separate harbours. These
    ambiguities are painful; but the fact is (although it argue me
    uncultured), I am but poorly posted upon Cellardyke. My business
    lay in the two Anstruthers. A tricklet of a stream divides them,
    spanned by a bridge; and over the bridge at the time of my
    knowledge, the celebrated Shell House stood outpost on the west.
    This had been the residence of an agreeable eccentric; during his
    fond tenancy, he had illustrated the outer walls, as high (if I
    remember rightly) as the roof, with elaborate patterns and
    pictures, and snatches of verse in the vein of EXEGI MONUMENTUM;
    shells and pebbles, artfully contrasted and conjoined, had been his
    medium; and I like to think of him standing back upon the bridge,
    when all was finished, drinking in the general effect and (like
    Gibbon) already lamenting his employment.

    The same bridge saw another sight in the seventeenth century. Mr.
    Thomson, the "curat" of Anstruther Easter, was a man highly
    obnoxious to the devout: in the first place, because he was a
    "curat"; in the second place, because he was a person of irregular
    and scandalous life; and in the third place, because he was
    generally suspected of dealings with the Enemy of Man. These three
    disqualifications, in the popular literature of the time, go hand
    in hand; but the end of Mr. Thomson was a thing quite by itself,
    and in the proper phrase, a manifest judgment. He had been at a
    friend's house in Anstruther Wester, where (and elsewhere, I
    suspect) he had partaken of the bottle; indeed, to put the thing in
    our cold modern way, the reverend gentleman was on the brink of
    DELIRIUM TREMENS. It was a dark night, it seems; a little lassie
    came carrying a lantern to fetch the curate home; and away they
    went down the street of Anstruther Wester, the lantern swinging a
    bit in the child's hand, the barred lustre tossing up and down
    along the front of slumbering houses, and Mr. Thomson not
    altogether steady on his legs nor (to all appearance) easy in his
    mind. The pair had reached the middle of the bridge when (as I
    conceive the scene) the poor tippler started in some baseless fear
    and looked behind him; the child, already shaken by the minister's
    strange behaviour, started also; in so doing, she would jerk the
    lantern; and for the space of a moment the lights and the shadows
    would be all confounded. Then it was that to the unhinged toper
    and the twittering child, a huge bulk of blackness seemed to sweep
    down, to pass them close by as they stood upon the bridge, and to
    vanish on the farther side in the general darkness of the night.
    "Plainly the devil come for Mr. Thomson!" thought the child. What
    Mr. Thomson thought himself, we have no ground of knowledge; but he
    fell upon his knees in the midst of the bridge like a man praying.
    On the rest of the journey to the manse, history is silent; but
    when they came to the door, the poor caitiff, taking the lantern
    from the child, looked upon her with so lost a countenance that her
    little courage died within her, and she fled home screaming to her
    parents. Not a soul would venture out; all that night, the
    minister dwelt alone with his terrors in the manse; and when the
    day dawned, and men made bold to go about the streets, they found
    the devil had come indeed for Mr. Thomson.

    This manse of Anstruther Easter has another and a more cheerful
    association. It was early in the morning, about a century before
    the days of Mr. Thomson, that his predecessor was called out of bed
    to welcome a Grandee of Spain, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, just
    landed in the harbour underneath. But sure there was never seen a
    more decayed grandee; sure there was never a duke welcomed from a
    stranger place of exile. Half-way between Orkney and Shetland,
    there lies a certain isle; on the one hand the Atlantic, on the
    other the North Sea, bombard its pillared cliffs; sore-eyed, short-
    living, inbred fishers and their families herd in its few huts; in
    the graveyard pieces of wreck-wood stand for monuments; there is
    nowhere a more inhospitable spot. BELLE-ISLE-EN-MER - Fair-Isle-
    at-Sea - that is a name that has always rung in my mind's ear like
    music; but the only "Fair Isle" on which I ever set my foot, was
    this unhomely, rugged turret-top of submarine sierras. Here, when
    his ship was broken, my lord Duke joyfully got ashore; here for
    long months he and certain of his men were harboured; and it was
    from this durance that he landed at last to be welcomed (as well as
    such a papist deserved, no doubt) by the godly incumbent of
    Anstruther Easter; and after the Fair Isle, what a fine city must
    that have appeared! and after the island diet, what a hospitable
    spot the minister's table! And yet he must have lived on friendly
    terms with his outlandish hosts. For to this day there still
    survives a relic of the long winter evenings when the sailors of
    the great Armada crouched about the hearths of the Fair-Islanders,
    the planks of their own lost galleon perhaps lighting up the scene,
    and the gale and the surf that beat about the coast contributing
    their melancholy voices. All the folk of the north isles are great
    artificers of knitting: the Fair-Islanders alone dye their fabrics
    in the Spanish manner. To this day, gloves and nightcaps,
    innocently decorated, may be seen for sale in the Shetland
    warehouse at Edinburgh, or on the Fair Isle itself in the
    catechist's house; and to this day, they tell the story of the Duke
    of Medina Sidonia's adventure.

    It would seem as if the Fair Isle had some attraction for "persons
    of quality." When I landed there myself, an elderly gentleman,
    unshaved, poorly attired, his shoulders wrapped in a plaid, was
    seen walking to and fro, with a book in his hand, upon the beach.
    He paid no heed to our arrival, which we thought a strange thing in
    itself; but when one of the officers of the PHAROS, passing
    narrowly by him, observed his book to be a Greek Testament, our
    wonder and interest took a higher flight. The catechist was cross-
    examined; he said the gentleman had been put across some time
    before in Mr. Bruce of Sumburgh's schooner, the only link between
    the Fair Isle and the rest of the world; and that he held services
    and was doing "good." So much came glibly enough; but when pressed
    a little farther, the catechist displayed embarrassment. A
    singular diffidence appeared upon his face: "They tell me," said
    he, in low tones, "that he's a lord." And a lord he was; a peer of
    the realm pacing that inhospitable beach with his Greek Testament,
    and his plaid about his shoulders, set upon doing good, as he
    understood it, worthy man! And his grandson, a good-looking little
    boy, much better dressed than the lordly evangelist, and speaking
    with a silken English accent very foreign to the scene, accompanied
    me for a while in my exploration of the island. I suppose this
    little fellow is now my lord, and wonder how much he remembers of
    the Fair Isle. Perhaps not much; for he seemed to accept very
    quietly his savage situation; and under such guidance, it is like
    that this was not his first nor yet his last adventure.
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