MoboReader> Literature > White Fire

   Chapter 1 MISS INQUISITIVE

White Fire By John Oxenham Characters: 16828

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


She was so dainty a little figure that the bare-armed women in the doors of the lands and closes turned and looked after her with enjoyment untinged even with envy. They scratched their elbows and commented on her points with complacent understanding.

"None o' your ten-and-six carriage paid in that lot, I'm thinking, Mrs. O'Neill," said one.

"Thrue for ye, Mrs. Macfarlane. Purty as a daisy, she is. It's me that wud like to be on tairms with her maw when she's done with 'em."

And a decidedly pretty little figure the small girl made, in her stylishly pleated blue serge, jaunty tam, natty leather belt, and twinkling brown shoes, and her absolute unconsciousness of anything unduly attractive in her appearance.

Her determined little face was set strenuously. She looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, beyond a glance now and again for landmarks. And above all, and most inflexibly, she never once looked behind her; for she was bound upon an adventure, and her reward lay on ahead.

"Past the cemetery gates," she said to herself. "Up a brae. Past a pond and up a cinder path. That's all right! That must be the woollen mill, and that's the paper-mill, and that splashing white must be the Cut."

As she took the cinder path, the gates of the two mills opened, and a flood of hurrying girls came down towards the town, mostly in bunches, laughing and joking, some with linked arms, some few solitary. Then followed boys and men, with dinner in their faces, and an occasional word fired at the girls in front.

The girls all fell silent, and resolved themselves into devouring eyes, as the dainty little figure stepped briskly past them. There were spasms of longing among them; they buried them under bursts of wilder laughter. The men and boys glanced at her out of the corners of their eyes, and did not understand why the sky looked bluer and the sunshine brighter than it had done a moment before.

She came, presently, to a dividing of the ways, where the roads branched to the two mills, made a short reconnaissance of the flashing chute she had seen from below, then turned to the right, past the paper-mill and the manager's house, past the clump of fir-trees, and came out on a footpath by the side of which the rushing brown waters of the Cut hurried down to the mills and reservoirs.

"O-o-o-oh!" said the small girl rapturously, and her face was an unconscious Te Deum.

And well it might be, for she had a great appreciation of the beautiful, and she was enjoying her first full glimpse of one of the finest sights in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland and the adjacent Cumbraes.

"O-o-oh!" and she sat down to enjoy it.

Below her to the right rose the smoke of the town and the ceaseless clangour of the ship-building yards. A movement would have hidden them from her. But she did not move; she neither saw nor heard them. Her eyes were fixed absorbedly on the mighty panorama beyond: the lovely firth, blue as an Italian lake, and all alive with traffic; energetic little river steamers racing with rival toys; slow coasters toiling along like water-beetles; a great black American liner at the Tail of the Bank; the great grey guardship with its trim official lines and hovering launches; and farther out, near the opposite shore, the white sails of yachts flashing in the sun like seabirds' wings. And beyond-the hills, the mighty hills of God. She had known the hills in a general, wholesale way for long enough; but she knew now that she had never known them before. From this lofty vantage point she saw them now for the first time in all their grandeur and beauty, and they overwhelmed her.

Such a mighty array of giants: green, rounded hills; rugged brown hills, flushed with the purple of the heather; grey mountain peaks piled fantastically against the unflecked blue sky; bosky glens; dark patches of forest land; and all about them, down below, the silent strength of the sea, lapping the feet of the recumbent giants, creeping up among their sprawling limbs, and cradling the mighty bulks with tender caresses!

The girl sat for a long time drinking it all in, to the tune of the swirl and bubble and tinkle of the swift brown water behind her. Then she got up and went on along the path, which disclosed fresh beauties of the larger view at every step. She went on and on, heedless of everything but the wide, vast prospect and her own mighty enjoyment of it. She had some lunch in her pocket; she forgot it. The air was so sweet and strong that she felt no fatigue. She had walked for over an hour in this new heaven of delight, when she came tumbling to earth in truly feminine fashion.

The path followed the Cut round the folds and wrinkles of the hillside. At times, on in front, it disappeared into the sky. She was nearing one such sharp turn, when a pair of mighty horns came wavering round it, and behind the horns an evil monster all in black and with baleful eyes. At sight of her it gave an angry bellow and pawed the ground. Alongside her was a small stone erection like an unfinished hut, on a little platform, below which white water trickled down a glen full of ferns and trees. She clasped her hands, gave herself up for lost, and dropped out of the monster's sight behind the one end wall of the hut.

Then a boy's voice rang out full and clear-

"Ah, beast! Bos ferocissime! Get out o' that, or I'll do for you. What's taken you to-day, you old villain?"

Then followed more forcible argument in the shape of stones, and, with grateful twitches of her clasped hands, the small girl saw her discomfited enemy go crashing down the hillside among the whins and ferns and rolling rocks.

The beast was evidently possessed of an unusually perverse disposition that day. It looked up once at the girl behind the wall, and made some spiteful remark, which elicited a dissuasive "Would you?" and another shower of stones from its keeper. Then it went galloping away on the sides of its feet along the steep hillside. The boy, with an exclamation, sprang down after it, and the girl caught sight of him for the first time-a sturdy little figure, with light hair and unlimited energy. He chased the beast with boyish objurgations, which broke out with new vigour when the chase led through a piece of black swamp, with the natural results to the pursuer.

He came back presently, hot and muddy, whistling like a blackbird.

She was just about to get up and go on, when she heard him jumping down into the little glen below, and she craned over to see what he was about.

He scrambled down to a small round natural basin in the rock, threw off his jacket and waistcoat, unbuttoned his flannel shirt, and proceeded to a mighty wash.

He seemed to revel in it so exceedingly that the girl sat and watched him with enjoyment. He had no towel, so did not waste any time in drying himself, but allowed the sun and wind to do their duties. Then he came clambering up the slope again. There was a large flat stone in front of the embryo cabin. He came and sat down on it, and remained there so long and so quiet that at last she moved slightly and peeped round to see what he was doing.

And what he was doing was so very astonishing that she gave an involuntary gasp of amazement.

He was lying flat on his stomach, with a tattered book open in front of him. On the flat slab was a diagram drawn with the chunk of chalk he held in his hand, and he was studying it so intently that he did not hear her till her shadow fell across his work.

"Hello! Where did you come from?" and he jumped up and stood staring at her. He was not aware of it, but he was dimly perceptive of the fact that she was very nice-looking. He remembered later-when her face evaded him-that she was very prettily dressed.

"From behind there," she said. "That nasty bull frightened me."

"He's a stupid beast." And then, suddenly bethinking himself, "Have you been there ever since?"

The girl nodded. She liked the look of him. His jacket and trousers were rough and well worn, but his face was wonderfully bright and clean. She did not know when she had seen a boy's face she liked so much. There was such a glow in it, and his blue eyes were so fearless and looked at her so very straight. She did not know very many boys, and did not care much for any of those she did know. They were always either teasing or silly, and al

ways abominably selfish. Somehow this boy did not seem any of those things.

"You'd no right to watch a gentleman washing himself."

"You're not a gentleman, and I couldn't help myself. At least--"

"You're not a lady, and you could have gone away quite well. It's a good thing for you I didn't have a bath in the big pool there. You'd have watched just the same, I suppose, Miss Inquisitive!"

"Oh!" she said sharply. "You rude thing! How did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That! Miss-- what you called me just now."

At which he laughed out loud, a great merry laugh that did one good to listen to, and showed a set of sound white teeth and a quick apprehension.

"Is that what they call you at home?" he asked, with a mischievous twinkle.

"My aunties call me that. Father says 'Want-to-know gets on.'"

"He's right," said the boy, with a blaze in the blue eyes. "I like your father better than your aunties. Where were you going when the beast stopped you?"

"Right along there," she nodded.

"All the way to the Sheils? It's a gey long way for a bit lassie like you."

"I'm not a bit lassie. I'm thirteen."

"Really! You're young for your age!"

She was somewhat doubtful about this remark, but it felt like a compliment, so she let it pass.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Kenneth Blair. What's yours?"

"Jean Arnot. How old are you?"

"I'll be fifteen next July." This was August.

"What's that you were drawing? Is it a windmill?" staring intently down at it.

"A windmill!"-with unutterable scorn. "And you say you're thirteen! That's Euclid-Prop. 47. It's a thumper too."

"I haven't begun Euclid yet," she said meekly, and regarded him with a face full enough of questioning to amply justify her nickname. "Will you please tell me something?"

He began to laugh, and she knew that "Miss Inquisitive" was on the tip of his tongue. He only nodded, however.

"Do all the herd-boys about here do Euclid?"

"I d'n' know. There's nothing to stop them if they want to."

"Why do you speak so differently from most other boys? You speak almost as well as I do."

A smile flickered in his face for a second, but died out, and he said quietly-

"That's easily told, anyway. My father was schoolmaster at Inverclaver. He taught me."

"And does he teach you still? Where is he schoolmaster now?"

He looked at her a moment in silence, and then said-

"I don't know. He's dead."

"Oh! But he can't be a schoolmaster anywhere if he's dead. I'm so sorry. And of course he can't teach you either."

"I don't know," said the boy slowly. "I think sometimes--"

But she was off on another scent.

"What are you going to be when you grow up?"

"Ah!"-with animation. "I'm going to be a big man."

"You can't make yourself that. You're not very big now."

"I've not done growing yet, and I'm very strong, and I've never been ill in my life. Besides--"

"I've just had measles and whooping-cough. That's why I'm here."

He nodded, as much as to say, "Yes, that's just the kind of thing girls would have"; and went on, "And then I'm going to be an explorer."

"O-o-o-h!" with snapping eyes. "Where?"

"I don't know where. Anywhere where nobody's ever been before."

She devoured him with hungry appreciation. His face was so very clean, so radiantly bright, and the sparks in his blue eyes kindled answering sparks in her own. For she too possessed a lively imagination, and a spirit many times the size of her body.

"But will you be able to? Are you very rich?"

"Rich? No, I'm not rich, but I'm not that poor either-not just now. I bought this last week," with a touch of superior pride, as he hauled out a Latin grammar, sixth-hand, but still boasting covers. "When I've finished it I'll feel poor till I get the next. But that's not yet."

"Wouldn't you like to be very rich?"

"I d'n' know. I never tried it."

"My father is very rich."

"Is he? And what are you going to do when you grow up?"

"Oh, I'm going to be a lady."

"Yes, that's about all you can be, I suppose," he nodded, and looked really sorry for her.

"I shall be very rich, and I shall do just what I like-except darning and needlework. They're hijjus!"

"Hideous," he said, with a touch of pedantic reproof which consorted oddly with his jacket and trousers.

"I always say 'hijjus' when it's quite too awful and past words. How would you like to be a manager of one of my father's mills?"

"I don't know," he said, regarding her doubtfully. "I'm thinking perhaps I wouldn't make a very good manager. Not yet."

Then her hand happened to touch her pocket, which reminded her of her lunch.

"Are you hungry?" she asked. "I'll sit down here and you shall have some of my lunch, and you shall tell me the names of all those hills and lochs opposite. Aren't they splendid?"

"Ay, they're grand. I've been watching them for a year now."

She wrestled her dainty little packet out of her pocket, and sat down on a rock looking out over the wonderful panorama in front. The boy sat down on another rock and hauled out a piece of newspaper in which were wrapped some broken pieces of thick oatcake and some rough fragments of cheese.

"Do you like oatcake and cheese?" she asked.

"Rather!"

"Won't you have some of my sandwiches?" she said politely, but not without anxiety.

He looked at the delicate provision, and said stoutly-

"No, thank you. I like this best."

And, as the little lady possessed the dainty but vigorous appetite of the fully-restored-to-health-and-got-to-make-up-for-lost-time, and as she was only thirteen, she was not rude enough to press him unduly.

"Now tell me the names of all those hills and lochs," she said, and he proceeded to tell her all she wanted to know.

"Yon's Dumbarton,"-between bites; "you can see Glasgow some days," and she regarded him doubtfully.

"And yon's the Gare Loch. That big fellow with the shoulders is Ben Lomond. The one humped up like this is The Cobbler. That other big one is Ben Ihme. That's Loch Long and a bit of Loch Goil, and yon's Holy Loch and Ben More."

When she had eaten her tiny sandwiches, and her two small cookies with jam inside, and her two biscuits, and had learned the names and personal peculiarities of all the hills and lochs, and he had finished the last crumbs of his oatcake and cheese, he convoyed her past the black menace down below, as far as the next stone dyke, and told her how she could shorten her journey by cutting across some fields, and so get down to the Inverkip road, and eventually to Ashton and the "caurs."

He watched the sprightly little figure, with the gleaming mane of hair and swinging skirts and twinkling brown shoes, till she reached the next distant corner, waved his hand to her, received an answering wave from her, and turned back to his life-his unruly beasts, his treasured Euclid and Latin grammar, his dreams, his hopes, and ever so much more than he knew.

Waved his hand to her, and received an answering wave.

But Prop. 47 was not amenable that afternoon. He smiled at thought of the windmill, and looked up to see her standing before him with her sweet childish face and questioning eyes. He thought much of the winsome little lady, both then and for a long time afterwards. He scanned the winding path by the Cut each day in hopes that she might come again. But she was away home to London, and at last only a memory of her remained, and that growing dimmer and dimmer till it was little more than a sentiment-simply the warm glow of a pleasant impression.

And she? Ah, she wrought better than she knew that day.

For when she got home from her great adventure, and had been duly scolded by her aunts for undertaking so much, when they had only expected her to go up to the Cut and down again in a couple of hours or so-when she reached home, old Mr. MacTavish, the minister, was there, and he rejoiced in her prattling tongue, and delighted in drawing her out.

She enlarged upon the very uncommon herd-laddie she had met up on the Cut,-on his satisfactory looks, his unique cleanliness, his fearlessness in the matter of wild beasts, his understanding, and his aims in life. Her thoughts were full of him, and when Miss Jean Arnot had something on her mind her little world was by way of hearing of it.

Old Mr. MacTavish had been a herd-laddie himself in his time.

Suffecit!

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares