The Biography of an Elderly Gentleman: Ii. The Boy and the Half-Crown

THE old gentleman and I often walk abroad in a rural district where there is a taciturn blacksmith. The old gentleman always maintains an illusion of a chat with this man. ‘I’ll be having a word with the smith,’ he tells me, ‘while you wait outside.’

I sit upon a fence near that open door where the tinkle and the clank of the smithy is audible, but never a word from the blacksmith or his guest. Presently out comes the old gentleman, very bland and entirely satisfied with his social adventure. There is nothing so uplifts him as a chat with a blacksmith. And this is because, long ago, when his name was Rubie, he being then about thirteen years of age, the old gentleman worked in a smithy.

This was in a village near Cromarty among the East Highlands of Scotland. It was a kind of three corners of a village full of important houses, and the smithy, at the time Rubie was at work there, was really most important. Everyone used to call upon the blacksmith. This is the origin doubtless of the old gentleman’s sense that the least you can do for a smith, if you pass his way, is to call upon him.

The youth of Rubie’s day, in making these calls in the village of three corners, invariably hung about and made itself handy, holding horses’ feet; for the shoeing, or taking a turn at the anvil. And this for the many pleasures of that delicious atmosphere there was in the smithy — of a deliberate and deft business going forward there, and the blooming and the fading of the flame and of the glowing metal. But Rubie, besides his share in these unparalleled pleasures, received a shilling a day for what he did. And this is what he did: he was salesman, and he took shoes off the horses’ feet. He would take the horse’s hoof upon his knee, declares the old gentleman, looking at us with eyes in which we seem to see how big was the horse with his hoof on the knee of little Rubie. And he would pry off the shoe. And there was a mate of Rubie’s, little like himself, and about the same business of shoeing horses, on whom the horse, growing restless, planted his hoof, and the boy died. This tale, never told us but once, seems to emphasize the enormous size of the horses treated by little Rubie; seems to account for the shadow of their size which is in the old gentleman’s eyes when this phase of blacksmithing is dwelt upon. But in the main you feel, in his account of this epoch, the thrilling sense of the dusk of that interior, smitten with the erratic light from the forge and peopled with young visitors.

The shilling, of course, says the old gentleman, was given to his mother. Now there is nothing to us ‘of course’ in this monotony of deposit. We think, and we say so, that a shilling should have bought his way into other of the important houses in the three corners. And in a second-hand way, he agrees, it did. There was the grocer’s house — he would be sent there for bread and for fruit. Oranges from Spain were there at threepence, nuts were there from Brazil, Zante currants, and sticks of black sugar. ‘Boys bought sticks of black sugar, you know, flattened with a seal at one end.’ We don’t know; we think it very thrilling, and are much disillusioned when we learn that black sugar stamped with a seal is just nothing but licorice. We think it not at all exotic, but the old gentleman thinks as Rubie thought of black sugar.

The grocer, we infer, was nothing much to remember. He was just a creature behind a counter, who took your pennies and gave you in return currants dried in southern suns. The butcher, too, was another featureless man from whom you bought meat twice a week. Fishwives, now, were more real, because you tormented them, for all your mother chid you. They were of another tribe, coming to the village from Cromarty with their creels strapped to their backs, and with a sailor’s superstition that, if they were counted, one would be lost. With this dreadful fate hanging about them, they yet walked single file. They were always counted. And they had a fishwives’ dialect especially fitted to this crisis. These tormented and violent creatures were important as a kind of foreign spectacle and a diversion — not as fellow humans, certainly not as individuals.

The keeper of the public house was important as an individual. And his house, on the west side of the post road, was important. But Rubie was never, in the whole course of his life, under the roof of the public house, because at the most tender years this little lad became a teetotaler — and this to the great disgust of the more conservative of his relatives, who could not abide a taste so fancy or a will so weak that it must sign a pledge. Terrible proud it was, to be a teetotaler, a thing of the south entirely, brought up to the Highlands by the Big Beggar Man, as Thomas Guthrie was called in those parts. And Rubie was his victim. Under this taboo he missed all the fine talk of the men from the hills who would be visiting the public house for a dram. Yes, there would be fine talk in that house, which was a kind of exchange for the news of the countryside. The missing of it was a great loss, and is still to be regretted.

As for the publican himself, he could be seen in church — the Free Kirk, that was at the other end of the village from the Established Kirk. Rubie, sucking a peppermint in the pew beside his mother, saw him every Sunday. He was the precentor. He had a wart on the top of his head. There is a high note in the tune of Dundee, and in other lofty tunes, which he could not reach and to which he pointed in the upper air, clearing his own throat and leaving the commoners to climb. Little Rubie saw the wart and the uplifted hand and heard the coincident cough, sitting by his dear, dear mother in the pew, on all the Sundays of his youth.

For nine months of the year he worked on the six week-days from six to six, and in the three winter months he went to school. We worm this out of him. Rubie kneeling under the bellies of horses in the smithy is much to the fore; he crowds little Rubie at school. And yet, now that you mention it, Rubie at school had adventures, too. There was a teacher, of course — you would guess as much; and he was a ‘stickit minister,’ of course, and you would guess that, too. He wore a white cravat and a silk hat. The boys called him ‘Ability.’ He was not married. He taught forty or fifty children the three R’s, and algebra, history, Latin, and geography — ‘all those things, you know,’ says the old gentleman rather casually. And Rubie was never touched by the tawse. That was a five-fingered leathered thong. Once, indeed, he was rapped by the bamboo cane that was always at hand. If you will believe it, that blow was not deserved; the old gentleman says so himself. He claims that he felt on that day his first keen sense of injustice. We are terribly pleased with this tale: it seems to discover for us the origin of certain inhibitions on the part of the old gentleman in his relation to his own children.

In those days, he claims, he had high marks. And dwell upon this, — he drives us to it, — he was a terrible little fighter! Aye, that he was. New boys of his own age must have horribly regretted their rash entry to that school, where the invincible Rubie must be met. Not only with both hands, mark you, but with his left hand tied, yes, or with his right hand tied — with any or all of the classical handicaps, the battle could have but one issue, and — ‘Well, they seemed to have a good deal of enthusiasm about me,’says the old gentleman, in whom the enthusiasm obviously survives.

It will never do to let him go in this uplifted mood with his face of false humility, — you see that for yourself, — and we make him tell us about the murder of the witch in the West Highlands. We know the power of that tale to bring him down. For it seems that on a day like another day the teacher rapped upon his desk, and when all those little ruddy faces looked his way, he blanched them with news. He had had a letter from his brother who was a minister in the West Highlands, and in that savage country they had accused a poor body of witchcraft; they had dug a hole in the ground in which they had then buried the poor woman to her neck. She died. It was a dreadful thing, the master had told his children, to have come about in a Christian country. And little Rubie felt a shadow fall upon him and a tribal shame. And to this day he will urge that such doings were unknown in the East Highlands.

There was in that school a girl called Euphemia. This was her name, her little indestructible name, not worn away or dimmed at all by the sixty-odd years that it has jingled in the pocket of the old gentleman’s memory. And she was the first girl ever he kissed. He remembers that, too; it is a brilliant little memory not dimmed. All old gentlemen — don’t doubt it — have these bright names and these little bright first kisses perfectly preserved in the vestpocket of their memories. This first kiss of which I am telling you was stolen, though Rubie thought that he had bought it with a turnip. He gave her a turnip and he took the kiss, thinking it was understood. But no, it was not understood: Euphemia struck him for his daring, with the very turnip, between the shoulders, and he saw stars. We think the fault was in the bribe — that it was inadequate; but the old gentleman says, indeed not. A sweet turnip right out of the field — and they together on the way from school, and hungry, too — was a perfectly adequate bribe. And there was a farmer’s boy in school who was competing for a prize that went by vote of the pupils, and he used dried peas for his bribes. He was always bidding for votes with peas, and Rubie voted for him entirely on the basis of peas.

We think this very low of Rubie; but perhaps, we think, it would have been different had the peas been money. Rubie then would have detected the vice of bribery. ‘ If it had been money,’ we ask him, ‘how would it have affected you?’ and are much relieved when he claims that money must be earned. Peas, he says, are different.

Well, there you have him, and are prepared for the following tale. From a blacksmith Rubie has become a ticketagent in a railway station. This is what he was next. And from fourteen or so, he has become sixteen or seventeen. He sits on a high stool, and that is a good way to be taller than you are. And he sells tickets out of an officewindow, for the North Shore and Western. Very important. Everybody knows him. And one day the agent, whose character never quite emerges to us, is speaking with a youth of the gentry about a young lady, also gentry, who is seen by them and by Rubie to go into the waiting-room. And the young buck of the gentry then told Rubie that he could win a half-crown if he would kiss that young lady.

‘ I got immediately off my stool,’ says the old gentleman, ‘and I went to where she stood, where they could see her as she stood, and I said to her, would she excuse me, but that I had been told that I could win two-and-sixpence if she would permit me to kiss her. Immediately she stooped down,’ — Ah, Rubie, that she had to stoop! — ‘and she laid her arms about my neck and kissed me. And so I got the two-and-six.’

We gape at the old gentleman with his ‘immediately.’ It is to us the most bald, incredible tale. How could it be? But it was, says he, and is about to remember her name, when we tell him not to. ‘Did you feel hot or anything?’ we ask. But he says no, not at all, and that it was for him purely a matter of business, of two-and-sixpence — a halfweek’s wages!

‘ How about her,’ we ask; ‘ how could she ? ’

‘Oh, well,’ says the old gentleman, ‘they all bought their tickets of me, they all knew me!’

The logic of this consequence of habitual ticket-buying is confusing to us, but not to him: he looks at us out of the old ruddy face that was once the young ruddy face of Rubie, with Rubie’s bland calm. It begins to be evident that for a half-crown Rubie might go far. And yet — there is the affair of the penknife.

An important person is known to have offered Rubie the ticket-seller a tip of two-and-six. Rubie refused it. And the important person then asked a favor of Rubie. You know how, when strong characters refuse our favors, we are impelled to lean upon that strength. This important person yielded to that impulse. He gave two-and-six to Rubie, begging him to buy for him a knife which he would claim on his return journey. Rubie bought the knife; he carried it in his pocket as a trust until one day, long after, when he guessed that the knife was his, and that he had been tipped.

There was a reason why it was truly noble of Rubie to have refused a halfcrown from whatever source, for he began about this time to be heavily burdened with family cares, having contracted his first family. And this was Alec.

Alec was the first family ever Rubie had, and we know him for that because upon his advent Rubie is beset by financial care. Yes, in the person of that little brother the incubus of family is first settled upon Rubie. And this is to dismiss as not material the family that was established for him in the letter from London. We never entertained that family, though Rubie did. He had paid a half-crown for it, in answer to an advertisement in a long-forgotten newspaper. ‘The name and the photograph of your future wife, and the number of your children, revealed for two-and-six.’ And there, sure enough, in the first letter Rubie remembers ever to have received, and brought all the way from London in a mail-pouch, the picture of ‘Amy’ and the sum of three children! Indeed, he did not at all dismiss them; he was perfectly agreeable to them. But he was resigned to an interval, with the photograph of Amy for solace. And in the interval there was Alec.

This little boy must have stolen very softly upon Rubie, who cannot remember the day that he was born, or anything about him very compelling, until he was a year old or thereabouts. ‘ Our mother cared for him at first, of course,’ says the old gentleman, in excuse of Rubie’s long indifference to Alec. But once assumed, how complete was his devotion to his family! It must have been then that Rubie and his two brothers recognized Alec for a minister — nothing less. Yes, there were they, just common bodies altogether, one a farm-hand and one a carpenter’s apprentice and one a ticket-seller, who received upon a given day some sure token — and we wonder what it can have been — that little Alec was to be a minister.

With this illumination, began for Jimmie and Murdo and Rubie those financial anxieties which are the true mark of the family state, and for which Rubie had so complete a vocation. ’Between us we were to care for him, to dress him, to teach him and to send him to college,’ says the old gentleman, of the only partnership he ever entered. Rubie was to teach him! Oh, the Hieland pride of it, to be keeping a minister! And oh, the terrible cost of it, with wages what they were! It just could n’t be done in the village of three corners. One of them must just go away! Rubie it was who must go away. He, who could never let his darling out of his sight, must go away. Terrible it was, and thrilling too, to go away. Other boys went away, to America and to Australia. News came back of them that they prospered, but they never came back. They were too young to come back, that was why. An old man came back after forty years in America. Forty years in America he was, and came back loving to talk and to answer questions. The old gentleman says that he can see him still among a group of lads all asking questions about the Indians, according to Cooper, and about slavery, based upon Lena Rivers.

We cannot conceal our surprise at Lena Rivers. We are so snobbish that we cannot conceal it. But the old gentleman is ready to retail that story by Mary Holmes with an imperishable appreciation. To evade Lena Rivers we have to acknowledge that we have met her before. No need, we say, to repeat the introduction; it is only that we had never thought to meet her here — Egeria to a flock of Highland lads, and pointing them to America.

The three of them, says the old gentleman, of his brothers and himself, turned this way and that to establish the future of their little minister, and Rubie was for running away to enlist. Or it was Rannie Fraser made the plan, for he was a genius; and it was Rubie bought the tickets, this being in his line; and it was Rubie’s mother spoked the wheel of Rubie’s escape, that being in the maternal line. The way she did it was this, and the way of it was so simple that we are dazzled by it: she took Rubie for a walk. On the very day of the flight, and at the very hour for which Rubie had a ticket, she took him for a walk. They just walked and walked, with never a word to the point, until the train was gone, and the other lads were gone with it. And that is why Rannie Fraser is buried in Egypt, and Rubie is still catching trains.

That was the day of his mother’s great success. But she could n’t keep it up — you must guess as much, and that one day you will find her putting Rubie’s little oddments — terribly quaint they are, too — in a box of his father’s making; and that Rubie would be buying a ticket of himself for a world far wider and far stranger than the world we know.

I understand from the old gentleman that it is an uncanny thing to leave home. There is a day that you need not look for on any kindly calendar. They could never bear to print the date of that day. And there is an hour that is neither morning nor afternoon nor any known hour, and that is the hour they see you off. You had not known that the hour was to be as it is. You wonder what you can have been thinking of, to have contracted on such a day to meet such an hour. But there you are, and you are in the train. You who have sold tickets for so long, thinking light of it, are now bound by a ticket to an unlooked-for adventure — you are to say good-bye.

The family is there and the neighbors are there. They make you little presents. You look at them from the open window of the carriage, and oh, you see them! You begin to bleed internally, and you look at your mother, and you know that a sword has pierced her own soul also. You look at little Alec, and he takes his little white cravat off his neck. He holds it up to you from the platform. He is making you a present. It is his little present to you. And then a curious thing happens: the train begins to move. They all slip away. And you have Alec’s cravat in your hand.

Yes, that was little Alec. We know the sort of child he was. He was of those immortal children who die and who live forever. And nothing will appease them. You may name ships for them and hospitals for them and rescue homes for them and orphanages for them, and still they will be pushing their lovers with their little phantom hands, to climb by ladders of human endeavor to fetch the moon for them. Before they die, they are so tender that you never guess the strength of them; only by some little gesture or an aspect they warn you while they live, of all they mean to drive you to. In their lives they buy you with some unforgettable light grace, and in their deaths they use the thing they have bought. There was Rubie leaning out of a carwindow and Alec buying him forever with a little white cravat. And Rubie thinking himself so free and all, going away so brave, so wealthy, with five pounds in his pocket, thinking to meet Indians in a great level forest, never guessing yet that a postman was so soon to trace him along a new way to a new door, and to tell him that Alec was dead and had bought him for the cravat. No, Rubie did not think at all as yet of the wonder and the anguish of letters, or of the feet of postmen.