Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/An honest Arab
AN HONEST ARAB.
We had been on a fishing tour in the Highlands, and, en route to town, were idling a day or two in “the grey metropolis of the north.” “Scotchman, Xpress, Merkerry, Fewzees, penny a hunder—this day’s Scotchman, sir!” shouted a shrill-piped, ragged little imp at the fag end of a cold, wet, bitter day in October, as we stood blowing a cloud at the door of the New Royal in Princes Street.
“No, we don’t want any.”
“Fewzees, penny a hunder, sir; this day’s paper, sir—half price, sir—only a bawbee;” persisted the young countryman of Adam Smith, as the market showed symptoms of decline, and threatened to close decidedly flat.
“Get along, Bird’s-eye, don’t want any,” growled Phillips.
“They’re gude fewzees, sir, penny a hunder.”
“Don’t smoke,” Phillips, loquitur, whif, whif, whif.
“They’re gude fewzees, sir, hunder and twenty for a penny, sir,” coming round on my flank.
“No, don’t want ’em, my boy.”
The keen blue face, red bare feet ingrained with dirt, and bundle of scanty rags looked piteously up at me, moved off a little, but still hovered round us. Now, when I put down my first subscription to the One Tun Ragged School in Westminster, I took a mental pledge from myself to encourage vagrant children in the streets no more. Somehow in this instance that pledge wouldn’t stand by me, but gave way.
“Give me a penn’orth, young ’un.”
“Yes, sir—they dinna smell.”
“If the lucifers don’t, the son of Lucifer does,” threw in Phillips.
“Ah, I haven’t got a copper, little ’un, nothing less than a shilling; so, never mind, my boy, I’ll buy from you to-morrow.”
“Buy them the nicht, if you please. I’m very hung-grey, sir.”
“He’ll give you his cheque for the balance, Geff.”
His little cold face, which had lightened up, now fell, for, from his bundle of papers, I saw his sales had been few that day.
“I’ll gang for change, sir.”
“Well, little ’un. I’ll try you—there is a shilling—now be a good boy, and bring me the change to-morrow morning to the hotel—ask for Mr. Turner.”
“Give my friend your word of honour, as a gentleman, as security for the bob.”
“As sure’s death, sir, I’ll bring the change the mom,” was the promise of young Lucifer before be vanished with the shilling.
“Well, Turner,” as we strolled along Princes Street, “you don’t expect to see your brimstone friend again, do you?”
“Your friend will dishonour his I.O.U. as sure as—”
“Well, I won’t grieve about the money; but I think I can trust yon boy.”
“Can? Why, you have trusted him; and your deliberation savours remarkably of the wisdom of the historical stable-keeper, who began to think about shutting the door when but the illustration don’t seem to strike you as a novelty.”
“Well, we’ll see.”
“Yes, wonders, but not young Brimstone and your money.”
Next morning we were on the Roslin Stage to “do” the wonderful little chapel there. It is a perfect little gem, and its tracery, and its witchery, and its flowers, and fruits, and stony stories charm and delight the civilised eye and soul as fresh to-day, as they did the rude barbarians four long centuries ago. I never visit Edinburgh, but I go and see that little chapel at Roslin, and always endeavour to have a fresh companion with me, to watch the new delight and joy he receives, and of which I am a partaker too. But to return to the Roslin Stage. We were stopped near the University by a crowd congregated round some wretch brought to grief by the race-horse pace of a butcher’s cart. A working man raised something in his arms, and, followed by the crowd, bore it off.
“It was over thereabouts, Phillips,” I said during the block-up, “that Lord Darnley, of exalted memory, was blown up in the Kirk o’ the Fields, to which sky-rocketing Mary of Scotland and the Isles, Regina, his beauteous, loving, and ill-starred spouse, was said to be a privy and consenting party.”
“Nothing peculiarly interesting or uncommon in that episode of connubial bliss, I should think, friend of mine. Blown up, my boy! One of dearest woman’s dearest privileges—that’s what you may look forward to when you pledge your plighted troth.”
“Blown up by gunpowder, Charley, Guy Faux fashion, though. That’s Damley’s garden-wall close by that public house, and that’s the door-way of it built up.”
“Quite right, too. No backways to the tap, say I. And Darnley be darned and blowed, too; but why don’t Jehu handle his ribbons, and stir up his thoroughbreds. Now, then, one o’clock, the stage waits.”
“Bid ye say ane o’clock, sir,” returned Jarvie, rustling his ribbons, after we had gone a little way. “I’m thin kin ye’re gey weel acquaint wi’ that hour, the ‘wee short hour ayont the twal,’ as Robbie says. Wad ye hae me drive on, regardless o’ life or lim, and may be render anither bairn lifeless, or an object for life. Na, na; ane o’clock kens better.”
“What’s put your pipe out, Charley, you neither smoke nor speak. Has ‘ane o’clock’ put on the stopper?”
“I houp not, sir—meant nae offence, sir,” said Coachee, who heard me. “Look ye, there’s Craigmillar Castle, where puir Queen Mary spent a few o’ her few happy days; and there’s Blackford Hill, where Sir Walter says Marmion stood and saw
"Such dusky grandeur clothe the height,
Where the huge Castle holds its state,
And all the steep slope down,
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
Piled deep and massy, close and high,
Mine own romantic town!
And that’s Liberton, where Mr. Butler, in the Heart of Mid Lothian, was Dominie. And yonder’s Burdie House; there’s rare fossil fish and other creaturs got at its lime quarries, they tell me. Ah! I’ve mony a time seen puir Hugh Miller, wha’s dead and gone, oot here ladened wi’ bits o’ stanes that he ca’d fine specimens, and gae’d long nebbed foreign names to. Burdie House, ye ken, is Scotch for Bourdeaux House, a place where some of Mary’s foreign courtiers lived; and that village you see ow’r by my whip, was built for her French flunkeys, and is ca’d Little France to this very day.”
On our return to the inn, I inquired:
“Waiter, did a little boy call for me to-day?”
“Boy, sir?—call, sir? No, sir.”
“Of course, Geff, he didn’t. Did you really expect to see your young Arab again?”
“Indeed I did, Charley. I wish he had proved honest.”
“Then, oh Lucifer, son of the morning, how thou art fallen!”
Later in the evening a small boy was introduced, who wished to speak with me. He was a duodecimo edition of the small octavo of the previous day, got up with less outlay of capital—a shoeless, shirtless, shrunk, ragged, wretched, keen-witted Arab of the streets and closes of the city. He was so very small and cold and childlike—though with the same shivering feet and frame, thin, blue-cold face, down which tears had worn their weary channels—that I saw at once the child was not my friend of the previous night.
“Enter Antonio to redeem his bond!” Phillips, loquitur.
He stood for a few minutes diving and rummaging into the recesses of his rags; at last little Tom Thumb said:
“Are you the gentleman that boucht fewzees frae Sandy yesterday?”
“Yes, my little man.”
“Weel here’s sevenpence (counting out divers copper coins), Sandy canna come; he’s no weel; a cart ran ow'r him the day, and broken his legs, and lost his bannet, and his fewzees, and your fourpence-piece, and his knife, and he’s no weel. He’s no weel ava, and the doc—tor says—says he’s dee—dee—in, and—and that’s a’ he can gie you, noo.” And the poor child, commencing with sobs, ended in a sore fit of crying.
I gave him food, for, though his cup of sorrow was full enough, his stomach was empty, as he looked wistfully at the display on the tea-table.
“Are you Sandy’s brother?”
“Aye, sir;” and the flood-gates of his heart again opened.
“Where do you live? Are your father and mother alive?”
“We bide in Blackfriars Wynd in the Coogate. My mither’s dead, and father’s awa; and we bide whiles wi’ our gudemither,” sobbing bitterly.
“Where did this accident happen?”
“Near the college, sir.”
Calling a cab, we were speedily set down at Blackfriars Wynd. I had never penetrated the wretchedness of these ancient closes by day, and here I entered one by night, and almost alone. Preceded by my little guide, I entered a dark, wide, winding stair, until, climbing many flights of stairs in total darkness, he opened a door, whence a light maintained a feeble unequal struggle with the thick, close-smelling, heavy gloom. My courage nearly gave way as the spectacle of that room burst upon me. In an apartment, certainly spacious in extent, but scarcely made visible by one guttering candle stuck in a bottle, were an overcrowded mass of wretched beings sleeping on miserable beds spread out upon the floor, or squatted or reclining upon the cold unfurnished boards.
Stepping over a prostrate quarrelling drunkard, I found little Sandy on a bed of carpenter’s shavings on the floor. He was still in his rags, and a torn and scanty coverlet had been thrown over him. Poor lad! he was so changed. His sharp pallid face was clammy and cold—beads of the sweat of agony standing on his brow—his bruised and mangled body lay motionless and still, except when sobs and moaning heaved his fluttering breast. A bloated woman, in maudlin drunkenness (the dead or banished father’s second wife, and not his mother), now and then bathed his lips with whiskey-and-water, while she applied to her own a bottle of spirits to drown the grief she hiccuped and assumed. A doctor from the Royal Infirmary had called and left some medicine to soothe the poor lad’s agony (for his case was hopeless, even though he had been taken at first, as he ought to have been, to the Infirmary in the neighbourhood), but his tipsy nurse had forgotten to administer it. I applied it, and had him placed upon a less miserable bed of straw; and feeing a woman, an occupant of the room, to attend him during the night, I gave what directions I could, and left the degraded, squalid home.
Next morning I was again in Blackfriars Wynd. Its close, pestilential air, and towering, antique, dilapidated mansions (the abode of the peerage in far-off times) now struck my senses. Above a doorway was carved upon the stone,—“Except ye Lord do build ye house ye builders build in vain.”
I said the room was spacious: it was almost noble in its proportions. The walls of panelled oak sadly marred, a massive marble mantelpiece of cunning carving, ruthlessly broken and disfigured, enamelled tiles around the fireplace, once representing some Bible story, now sore despoiled and cracked, and the ceiling festooned with antique fruit and flowers, shared in the general vandal wreck. With the exception of a broken chair, furniture there was none in that stifling den. Its occupants, said the surgeon, whom I found at the sufferer’s bed, were chiefly of our cities’ pests, and the poor lad’s stepmother—who had taken him from the ragged school that she might drink of his pitiful earnings—was as sunk in infamy as any there.
For the patient medical skill was naught, for he was sinking fast. The soul looking from his light blue eyes was slowly ebbing out, his pallid cheeks were sunk and thin, but consciousness I \\returned, and his lamp was flickering up before it sunk for ever. As I took his feeble hand, a flicker of recognition seemed to gleam across his face.
“I got the change, and was comin’——”
“My poor boy, you were very honest. Have you any wish—anything, poor child, I can do for you? I promise to——”
“Reuby, I’m sure I’m deein’, wha will take care o’ you noo?”
Little Reuben was instantly in a fit of crying, and threw himself prostrate on the bed. “Oh, Sandy! Sandy! Sandy!” sobbed his little heart.
“I will see to your little brother.”
“Thank you, sir! Dinna—dinna leave me, Reu—Reu—by. I’m com—comin’, comin’——”
“Wisht! wisht!” cried little Reub, looking up, and turning round to implore some silence in the room. That moment the calm faded smile, that seemed to have alighted as a momentary visitant upon his face, slowly passed away, the eyes became blank and glazed, and his little life imperceptibly rippled out.
The honest boy lies in the Canongate churchyard, not far from the gravestone put up by Burns to the memory of Ferguson, his brother poet, and I have little Reuben at Dr. Guthrie’s ragged school, and receive excellent accounts of him, and from him.
“What of your young Arab, Turner?” said Phillips, the following afternoon. “Was he honest, and is he really ill?”
“Yes, Phillips, he was an honest Arab; but now he is ‘where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.’”