It was not because life was not good enough that Ellen Melville was crying as she sat by the window. The world, indeed, even so much of it as could be seen from her window, was extravagantly beautiful. The office of Mr. Mactavish James, Writer to the Signet, was in one of those decent grey streets that lie high on the northward slope of Edinburgh New Town, and Ellen was looking up the side-street that opened just opposite and revealed, menacing as the rattle of spears, the black rock and bastions of the Castle against the white beamless glare of the southern sky. And it was the hour of the clear Edinburgh twilight, that strange time when the world seems to have forgotten the sun though it keeps its colour; it could still be seen that the moss between the cobblestones was a wet bright green, and that a red autumn had been busy with the wind-nipped trees, yet these things were not gay, but cold and remote as brightness might be on the bed of a deep stream, fathoms beneath the visitation of the sun. At this time all the town was ghostly, and she loved it so. She took her mind by the arm and marched it up and down among the sights of Edinburgh, telling it that to be weeping with discontent in such a place was a scandalous turning up of the nose at good mercies. Now the Castle Esplanade, that all day had proudly supported the harsh, virile sounds and colours of the drilling regiments, would show to the slums its blank surface, bleached bone-white by the winds that raced above the city smoke. Now the Cowgate and the Canongate would be given over to the drama of the disorderly night; the slum-dwellers would foregather about the rotting doors of dead men’s mansions and brawl among the not less brawling ghosts of a past that here never speaks of peace, but only of blood and argument. And Holyrood, under a black bank surmounted by a low bitten cliff, would lie like the camp of an invading and terrified army…. She stopped and said, “Yon about Holyrood’s a fine image for the institution of monarchy.” For she was a Suffragette, so far as it is possible to be a Suffragette effectively when one is just seventeen, and she spent much of her time composing speeches which she knew she would always be too shy to deliver. “There is a sinister air about palaces. Always they appear like the camp of an invading army that is uneasy and keeps a good look-out lest they need shoot. Remember they are always ready to shoot….” She interrupted herself with a click of annoyance. “I see myself standing on a herring-barrel and trying to hold the crowd with the like of that. It’s too literary. I always am. I doubt I’ll never make a speaker. ‘Deed, I’ll never be anything but the wee typist that I am….” And misery rushed in on her mind again. She fell to watching the succession of little black figures that huddled in their topcoats as they came down the side-street, bent suddenly at the waist as they came to the corner and met the full force of the east wind, and then pulled themselves upright and butted at it afresh with dour faces. The spectacle evoked a certain local pride, for such inclemencies were just part of the asperity of conditions which she reckoned as the price one had to pay for the dignity of living in Edinburgh; which indeed gave it its dignity, since to survive anything so horrible proved one good rough stuff fit to govern the rest of the world. But chiefly it evoked desolation. For she knew none of these people. In all the town there was nobody but her mother who was at all aware of her. It was six months since she left John Thompson’s Ladies’ College in John Square, so by this time the teachers would barely remember that she had been strong in Latin and mathematics but weak in French, and they were the only adult people who had ever heard her name. She wanted to be tremendously known as strong in everything by personalities more glittering than these. Less than that would do: just to see people’s faces doing something else than express resentment at the east wind, to hear them say something else than “Twopence” to the tram-conductor. Perhaps if one once got people going there might happen an adventure which, even if one had no part in it, would be a spectacle. It was seventeen years since she had first taken up her seat in the world’s hall (and it was none too comfortable a seat), but there was still no sign of the concert beginning.
“Yet, Lord, I’ve a lot to be thankful for!” breathed Ellen. She had this rich consciousness of her surroundings, a fortuitous possession, a mere congenital peculiarity like her red hair or her white skin, which did the girl no credit. It kept her happy even now, when from time to time she had to lick up a tear with the point of her tongue, on the thin joy of the twilight.
Really the world was very beautiful. She fell to thinking of those Saturdays that she and her mother, in the days when she was still at school, had spent on the Firth of Forth. Very often, after Mrs. Melville had done her shopping and Ellen had made the beds, they packed a basket with apples and sandwiches (for dinner out was a terrible price) and they took the tram down the south spurs to Leith or Grantown to find a steamer. Each port was the dwelling-place of romance. Leith was a squalid pack of black streets that debouched on a high brick wall delightfully surmounted by mast-tops, and from every door there flashed the cutlass gleam of the splendid sinister. Number 2, Sievering Street, was an opium den. It was a corner house with Nottingham lace curtains and a massive brown door that was always closed. You never would have known it, but that was what it was. And once Ellen and her mother had come back late and were taking a short cut through the alleys to the terminus of the Edinburgh trams (one saved twopence by not taking the Leith trams and had a sense of recovering the cost of the expedition), and were half-way down a silent street when they heard behind them flippety-flop, flippety-flop, stealthy and wicked as the human foot may be. They turned and saw a great black figure, humped but still high, keeping step with them a yard or so behind. Several times they turned, terrified by that tread, and could make nothing more of it, till the rays of a lamp showed them a tall Chinaman with a flat yellow face and a slimy pigtail drooping with a dreadful waggish school-girlishness over the shoulder of his blue nankin blouse; and long black eyes staring but unshining. They were between the high blank walls of warehouses closed for the night. They dared not run. Flippety-flop, flippety-flop, he came after them, always keeping step. Leith Walk was a yellow glow a long way off at the end of the street; it clarified into naphtha jets and roaring salesmen and a crowd that slowly flocked up and down the roadway and was channelled now and then by lumbering lighted cars; it became a protecting jostle about them. Ellen turned and saw the Chinaman’s flat face creased with a grin. He had been savouring the women’s terror under his tongue, sucking unimaginable sweetness and refreshment from it. Mrs. Melville was shedding angry tears and likening the Chinese to the Irish—a people of whom she had a low opinion—(Mr. Melville had been an Irishman)—but Ellen felt much sympathy as one might bestow upon some disappointed ogre in a fairy tale for this exiled Boxer who had tried to get a little homely pleasure. Ellen found it not altogether Grantown’s gain that it was wholly uninhabited by horror, being an honest row of fishers’ cottages set on a road beside the Firth to the west of Leith. Its wonder was its pier, a granite road driving its rough blocks out into the tumbling seas, the least urban thing in the world, that brought to the mind’s eye men’s bare chests and muscle-knotted arms, round-mouthed sea-chanteys, and great sound bodies caught to a wholesome death in the vicinity of upturned keels and foundered rust-red sails and the engulfing eternal sterilisation of the salt green waves.
From either of these places they sailed across the Firth: an arm of the sea that could achieve anything from an end-of-the-world desolation, when there was snow on the shores and the water rolled black shining mountains, to a South Seasish bland and tidy presentation of white and green islands enamelled on a blue channel under a smooth summer sky. Most often, for it was the cheapest trip, they crossed to Aberlady, where the tall trees stood at the sea’s edge, and one could sit on seaweedy rocks in the shadow of green leaves. Last time they had gone it had been one of the “fairs,” and men and women were dancing on the lawns that lay here and there among the wooded knolls. Ellen had sat with her feet in a pool and watched the dances over her shoulder. “Mummie,” she had said, “we belong to a nation which keeps all its lightness in its feet,” and Mrs. Melville had made a sharp remark like the ping of a mosquito about the Irish. Sometimes they would walk along a lane by the beach to Burntisland. There was nothing good about that except the name, and a queer resemblance to fortifications in the quays, which one felt might at any moment be manned by dripping mermen at war with the landfolk. There they would find a lurching, paintless, broad-bowed ferry, its funnel and metal work damascened by rust; with the streamers of the sunset high to the north-west, and another tenderer sunset swimming before their prow, spilling oily trails of lemon and rose and lilac on waters white with the fading of the meridian skies, they would sail back to quays that mounted black from troughs of gold.
She thought of it, still smiling; but the required ecstasy, that would reconcile her to her hopeless life, did not come. She waited for it with a canny look as she did at home when she held a match to the gas-ring to see if there was another shilling needed in the slot. The light did not come. By every evidence of her sense she was in the completest darkness. But she did not know what coin it was that would turn on the light again. Before there had been no fee demanded, but just appreciation of her surroundings, and that she had always had in hand; even to an extent that made her feel ridiculous to those persons, sufficiently numerous in Edinburgh, who regarded their own lack of it as a sign of the wealth of inhibition known as common sense, and hardly at ease on a country walk with anybody except her mother or her schoolfellow Rachael Wing. She thought listlessly now of their day-long excited explorations of the Pentland Hills. Why had that walk on Christmas Eve, two years ago, kept them happy for a term? They had just walked between the snow that lay white on the hills and the snow that hung black in the clouds, and had seen no living creature save the stray albatross that winged from peak to peak. She thought without more zest of their cycle-rides; though there had been a certain grim pride in squeezing forty miles a day out of the cycle which, having been won in a girls’ magazine competition, constantly reminded her of its gratuitous character by a wild capriciousness. And there were occasions too which had been sanctified by political passion. There had been one happy morning when Rachael and she had ridden past Prestonpans, where the fisher-folk sat mending their nets on the beach, and they had eaten their lunch among the wild rose thickets that tumbled down from the road to the sea. Rachael had raised it all to something on a much higher level than an outing by munching vegetarian sandwiches and talking subversively, for she too was a Suffragette and a Socialist, at the great nine-foot wall round Lord Wemyss’s estate, by which they were to cycle for some miles. She pointed out how its perfect taste and avoidance of red brick and its hoggish swallowing of tracts of pleasant land symbolised the specious charm and the thieving greed which were well known to be the attributes of the aristocracy. Rachael was wonderful. She was an Atheist, too. When she was twelve she had decided to do without God for a year, and it had worked. Ellen had not got as far as that. She thought religion rather pretty and a great consolation if one was poor. Rachael was even poorer than Ellen, but she had an unbreakable spirit and seemed to mind nothing in the world, not even that she never had new clothes because she had two elder sisters. It had always seemed so strange that such a clever girl couldn’t make things with paper patterns as Ellen could, as Ellen had frequently done in the past, as Ellen never wished to do again. She was filled with terror by the thought that she should ever again pin brown paper out of Weldon’s Fashions on to stuff that must not on any account run higher than a shilling the yard; that she should slash with the big cutting-out scissors just as Mrs. Melville murmured over her shoulder, “I doubt you’ve read the instructions right….” What was the good? She was decaying. That was proven by the present current of her thoughts, which had passed from the countryside, towards which she had always previously directed her mind when she had desired it to be happy, as one moves for warmth into a southern-facing room, and were now dwelling on the mean life of hopeless thrift she and her mother lived in Hume Park Square. She recollected admiringly the radiance that had been hers when she was sixteen; of the way she had not minded more than a wrinkle between the brows those Monday evenings when she had to dodge among the steamy wet clothes hanging on the kitchen pulleys as she cooked the supper, those Saturday nights when she and her mother had to wait for the cheap pieces at the butcher’s among a crowd that hawked and spat and made jokes that were not geniality but merely a mental form of hawking and spitting; of the way that in those days her attention used to leap like a lion on the shy beast Beauty hiding in the bush, the housewifely briskness with which her soul took this beauty and simmered it in the pot of meditation into a meal that nourished life for days. At the thought of the premature senility that had robbed her of these accomplishments now that she was seventeen she began again to weep….
The door opened and Mr. Mactavish James lumbered in, treading bearishly on his soft slippers, and rubbing the gold frame of his spectacles against his nose to allay the irritation they had caused by their persistent pressure during the interview he had been holding with the representative of another firm: an interview in which he had disguised his sense of his client’s moral instability by preserving the most impressive physical immobility. The air of the room struck cold on him, and he went to the fireplace and put on some coal, and sat down on a high stool where he could feel the warmth. He gloomed over it, pressing his hands on his thighs; decidedly Todd was in the wrong over this right of way, and Menzies & Lawson knew it. He looked dotingly across at Ellen, breathed “Well, well!”—that greeting by which Scot links himself to Scot in a mutual consciousness of a prudent despondency about life. Age permitted him, in spite of his type, to delight in her. In his youth he had turned his back on romance, lest it should dictate conduct that led away from prosperity, or should alter him in some manner that would prevent him from attaining that ungymnastic dignity which makes the respected townsman. He had meant from the first to end with a paunch. But now wealth was inalienably his and Beauty could beckon him on no strange pilgrimages, his soul retraced its steps and contemplated this bright thing as an earth creature might creep to the mouth of its lair and blink at the sun. And there was more than that to it. He loved her. He had never had enough to do with pitiful things (his wife Elizabeth had been a banker’s daughter), and this, child had come to him, that day in June, so white, so weak, so chilled to the bone, for all the summer heat, by her monstrous ill-usage….
He said, “Nelly, will your mother be feared if you stop and take a few notes for Mr. Philip till eight? There is a chemist body coming through from the cordite works at Aberfay who can’t come in the day but Saturday mornings, and you ken Mr. Philip’s away to London for the week-end by the 8.30, so he’s seeing him the night. Mr. Philip would be thankful if you’d stop.”
“I will so, Mr. James,” said Ellen.
“You’re sure your mother’ll not be feared?”
“What way would my mother be feared,” said Ellen, “and me seventeen past?”
“There’s many a lassie who’s found being seventeen no protection from a wicked world.” He emitted some great Burns-night chuckles, and kicked the fire to a blaze.
She said sternly, “Take note, Mr. James, that I haven’t done a hand’s turn this hour or more, and that not for want of asking for work. Dear knows I have my hand on Mr. Morrison’s door-knob half the day.”
Mr. James got up to go. “You’re a fierce hussy, and mean to be a partner in the firm before you’ve done with us.”
“If I were a man I would be that.”
“Better than that for you, lassie, better than that. Wait till a good man comes by.”
She snorted at the closing door, but felt that he had come near to defining what she wanted. It was not a good man she needed, of course, but nice men, nice women. She had often thought that of late. Sometimes she would sit up in bed and stare through the darkness at an imaginary group of people whom she desired to be with—well-found people who would disclose themselves to one another with vivacity and beautiful results; who in large lighted rooms would display a splendid social life that had been previously nurtured by separate tender intimacies at hearths that were more than grates and fenders, in private picture-galleries with wide spaces between the pictures, and libraries adorned with big-nosed marble busts. She knew that that environment existed for she had seen it. Once she had gone to a Primrose League picnic in the grounds of an Edinburgh M.P.’s country home and the secretary had taken her up to the house. They had waited in a high, long room with crossed swords on the walls wherever there were not bookshelves or the portraits of men and women so proud that they had not minded being painted plain, and there were French windows opening to a flagged terrace where one could lean on an ornate balustrade and look over a declivity made sweet with many flowering trees to a wooded cliff laced by a waterfall that seemed, so broad the intervening valley, to spring silently to the bouldered river-bed below. On a white bearskin, in front of one of the few unnecessary fires she had ever seen, slept a boar-hound. It was a pity that the books lying on the great round table were mostly the drawings of Dana Gibson and that when the lady of the house came in to speak to them she proved to be a lisping Jewess, but that could not dull the pearl of the spectacle. She insisted on using the memory as a guarantee that there must exist, to occupy this environment, that imagined society of thin men without an Edinburgh accent, of women who were neither thin like her schoolmistresses nor fat like her schoolfellows’ mothers and whose hair had no short ends round the neck.
But sometimes it seemed likely, and in this sad twilight it seemed specially likely, that though such people certainly existed they had chosen some other scene than Edinburgh, whose society was as poor and restricted as its Zoo, perhaps for the same climatic reason. It was the plain fact of the matter that the most prominent citizen of Edinburgh to-day was Mary Queen of Scots. Every time one walked in the Old Town she had just gone by, beautiful and pale as though in her veins there flowed exquisite blood that diffused radiance instead of ruddiness, clad in the black and white that must have been a more solemn challenge, a more comprehensive announcement of free dealings with good and evil, than the mere extravagance of scarlet could have been; and wearing a string of pearls to salve the wound she doubtless always felt about her neck. Ellen glowed at the picture as girls do at womanly beauty. Nobody of a like intensity had lived here since. The Covenanters, the Jacobites, Sir Walter Scott and his fellows, had dropped nothing in the pool that could break the ripples started by that stone, that precious stone, flung there from France so long ago. The town had settled down into something that the tonic magic of the place prevented being decay, but it was though time still turned the hour-glass, but did it dreamingly, infatuated with the marvellous thing she had brought forth that now was not. So greatly had the play declined in plot and character since Mary’s time that for the catastrophe of the present age there was nothing better than the snatching of the Church funds from the U.F.’s by the Wee Frees. It appeared to her an indication of the quality of the town’s life that they spoke of their churches by initials just as the English, she had learned from the Socialist papers, spoke of their trade unions. And for personalities there were innumerable clergymen and Sir Thomas Gilzean, Edinburgh’s romantic draper, who talked French with a facility that his fellow townsmen suspected of being a gift acquired on the brink of the pit, and who had a long wriggling waist which suggested that he was about to pick up the tails of his elegant frock-coat and dance. He was light indeed, but not enough to express the lightness of which life was capable; while the darker side of destiny was as inadequately represented by Æneas Walkinshaw, the last Jacobite, whom at the very moment Ellen could see standing under the lamp-post at the corner, in the moulting haberdashery of his wind-draggled kilts and lace ruffles, cramming treasonable correspondence into a pillar-box marked G.R…. She wanted people to be as splendid as the countryside, as noble as the mountains, as variable within the limits of beauty as the Firth of Forth, and this was what they were really like. She wept undisguisedly.
Image by Katarzyna Bruniewska-Gierczak