JOHNNY WEMYSS

Johnny Wemyss was not perhaps at that moment a figure precisely adapted
to please a maiden’s eye, nor would any other lad in St. Rule’s have
cared to present himself before a young lady whom he regarded with
interest, under his present aspect. His trousers were doubled up as far
as was practicable, upon legs which were not models of shapeliness nor
even of strength, being thin and wiry “shanks,” capable of any amount of
fatigue or exertion, but showing none of these qualities. His arms, much
like these lower members, were also uncovered up to the elbow, his blue
pea-jacket had a deposit of sand in every wrinkle, and the broad blue
bonnet on his head had scraps of very vivid green sea-weed clinging to
it, showing how Johnny’s head, as well as his arms and legs, had been in
contact with the recesses of the rocks. It was pushed back from his
forehead, and he was holding out at the length of his hairy, sinewy arm,
a thing which was calculated to call forth sentiments rather of disgust
than of admiration, in persons not affected with that sympathetic
interest in the researches of Johnny, which St. Rule’s in general was
now beginning to feel. It was a variety of that family of the Medusa,
called in St. Rule’s jelly fish, which fringe all the sands along that
coast after a storm. Elsie had got over the repugnance to touch the
clammy creatures, which is common to uninstructed persons, and was eager
to have the peculiarity in its transparent structure pointed out to her,
which marked it as a discovery. But Johnny was neither so animated in
its exposition, nor so enthusiastic over the beauty of his prize, as he
had been on many previous and less important occasions. He had been a
witness of Elsie’s progress, since Frank Mowbray had joined her. He had
seen her pause by the rocks to recover herself from something, he could
not tell what. Was it not very likely at least that it was a more full
disclosure of Frank’s sentiments–which, indeed, nobody in St. Rule’s
had any doubt about the nature of–which suddenly overcame a vigorous,
healthful girl like Elsie, and made her lean against the wet rocks which
were under water at full tide, and grasp the tangles of the dulse for
support? Nothing could be more probable, nay, certain. And when Elsie
turned towards her lover with that smile which the other half saw, and
most clearly divined, and led him back with her triumphant, what other
hypothesis could account for it? Johnny could follow with the most
delicate nicety the conclusions that were to be drawn from the
transparent lines of colour in the round clammy disc he held quivering
in his hand; but he could not tell, how could he; having no data to go
upon, and being quite incapable, as science will probably always
continue to be of such a task, to decipher what was in a single
quivering heart, though it might be of much more consequence to him. He
watched them coming along together, Frank Mowbray suddenly changed from
the commonplace comrade, never quite trusted as one of themselves by the
young men of St. Rule’s, though admitted to a certain cordiality and
good fellowship–coming along transfigured, beaming all over, his very
clothes, always so much more dainty than anybody else’s, giving out a
radiation of glory–the admired yet contemned spats upon his feet,
unconsciously stepping as if to music: and altogether with a conquering
hero aspect, which made Johnny long to throttle him, though Johnny was
perhaps the most peaceable of all the youths of his time. An unconscious
“confound him” surged up to the lips of the naturalist, himself so
triumphant a minute ago in the glory of his discovery; and for one
dreadful moment, Johnny felt disposed to pitch his Medusæ back into the
indifferent water, which would have closed over it as calmly as though
it had been the most lowly and best known of its kind. For what was the
good of anything, even an original discovery, if such a thing was
permitted to be under the skies, as that a girl such as Elsie Buchanan
should elect out of all the world the like of Frank Mowbray,
half-hearted Scot, dandy, and trifler, for her master? It was enough to
disgust a man with all the courses of the earth, and even with the
finest unclassed Medusæ newly voyaged out of the heart of the sea.

“Oh, Johnny,” Elsie said, hurrying towards him in all that glow and
splendour of triumph (as he thought). “I hear you have made a discovery,
a real discovery! Let me see it! and will it be figured in all the
books, and your name put to it? Wemyssea–or something of that kind.”

“I had thought of a different name,” said Johnny, darkly, “but I’ve
changed my mind.”

“What was that?” said Elsie, lightly taking hold of his arm in the easy
intimacy of a friendship that had lasted all her life–in order that she
might see more clearly the object limply held in his palm. “Tell me the
difference,” she said, throwing down her parcel, and putting her other
hand underneath his to bring the prize more distinctly within her view.
The young man turned deeply red up to his sandy hair, which curled round
the edge of his blue bonnet. He shrank a little from that careless
touch. And Frank, looking on with a half jealousy, quickly stifled by
the more agreeable thought that it was Elsie’s now distinctly identified
preference of himself which made her so wholly unconscious of any
feeling on the part of the other, laughed aloud out of pure delight and
joy of heart.

“What are you laughing at?” said Johnny, gruffly, divining only too well
why Frank laughed.

“Show me,” said Elsie, “I think I can see something. You always said I
was the quickest to see. Is it this, and this?” she said, bending over
the hand which she held.

“Let me hold it for you,” said Frank.

“I can hold up my hand myself,” said Johnny; “I am wanting no
assistance. As I found it myself, I hope I am able to show it myself
without anybody interfering.”

Elsie withdrew her hand, and looked up surprised in his face, with one
of those appeals which are so much less answerable than words. She stood
a little aside while he began to expound his discovery. They had all
caught a few of the most superficial scientific terms from Johnny. Elsie
would never have spoken of the new thing being “figured” in a book, but
for those little technicalities of knowledge which he shed about him.
And he had said that she was the one of all his interested society who
understood best. She was the only one who knew what observation meant,
the naturalist said. I think that this was a mistake myself, and that he
was chiefly led away by her sympathy and by certain other sentiments of
which it is unnecessary to speak.

In the meantime, he explained with a mingled gruffness and languor which
Elsie did not understand.

“Oh, it’s perhaps not so great a discovery after all,” Johnny said. “I
daresay some fellow has noted it before. That’s what you always find
when you take it into your head you have got something new.”

“But you know all about the Medusæ,” said Elsie, “and you would be sure
to know if it had been discovered before.”

“I’m not sure that I know anything,” said Johnny, despondently. He cast
the jelly fish out of his hand upon the sand. “We’re just, as Newton
said, like bairns picking up shells on the shore. We know nothing. It is
maybe no new thing at all, but just a variety that everybody knows.”

“Oh, Johnny, that is not like you!” cried Elsie, while the two young men
standing by, to whom this mood on Wemyss’s part was quite unknown, gaped
at him, vaguely embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Rodie had a great
desire to get away from a problem he could not understand, and Frank was
feeling a little guilty, he could scarcely tell why. Elsie got down on
her knees upon the sand, which was firm though wet, and, gathering a
handful of the dulse with its great wet stalks and hollow berries, made
a bed for the Medusæ, which, with some repugnance, she lifted on to the
little heap.

“You will have to give me a new pair of gloves,” she said, looking up
with a laugh, “for I have spoilt these ones that are nearly new; and
what will my mother say? But though you think it is very weak, I cannot
touch a jelly fish–I am meaning a Medusa, which is certainly a far
bonnier name–with my bare hands. There now, it will go easy into a
basket, or I would almost carry it myself, with the dulse all about it;
but to throw it away is what I will never consent to, for if you think
it is a discovery, I know it must be a discovery, and it will be called
after you, and a credit to us all.”

“It _is_ a discovery,” cried Johnny, with a sudden change of mien. “I
was a fool. I am not going to give it up, whatever happens. The less
that comes to me in this world, the more I’ll keep to the little I’m
sure of.” When he had uttered this enigmatical sentence, which was one
of those mystic utterances, more imposing than wisdom, that fill every
audience with confused admiration, he snapped his fingers wildly, and
executed a _pas_ of triumph. “It will make the London men stand about!”
he said, “and I would just like to know what the Professor will say to
it! As for the name—-”

“Oh, yes, Johnny, the name?”

“It will be time enough to think of that,” he said, looking at her with
mingled admiration and trouble. “Anyway, it is you that have saved it
for me,” he said.

“Frank,” said Rodie, “are you meaning to play your foursome with Raaf
and Alick, or are you not?”

“I thought you had turned me out of it,” said Frank.

“Oh, go away and play your game!” Elsie commanded in a tone of relief.
“It is just the thing that is best for you idle laddies, with never a
hand’s turn to do in this world. I am going home as soon as I have seen
Johnny take up his new beast like a person of sense, after taking the
pet at it like a silly bairn. You are all silly, the whole tribe of you,
for so much as you think of yourselves. If you’re late, Alick and Raaf
will just play a twosome, and leave you out.”

“That’s what they’ll do,” Rodie pronounced, authoritatively. “Come
along, Frank.”

And Frank followed, though torn in pieces by attractions both ways. It
was hard to leave Elsie in so gracious a mood, and also with Johnny
Wemyss, who had displayed a quite unexpected side to-day: but Johnny
Wemyss did not, could not count, whatever he might feel: surely if there
was anything a man could calculate upon, it was that. And Frank was
sincerely pleased to be taken into favour again by that young despot,
Rodie, who in his capacity as Elsie’s brother, rode roughshod over Ralph
Beaton and was more respected than he had any right to be by several
more of the golf-playing community. So that it seemed a real necessity
in present circumstances, with the hopes of future games in mind, to
follow him docilely now.

“Why were you so petted, Johnny?” said Elsie, when reluctantly her wooer
had followed her brother in a run to the links.

“I was not petted,” said Johnny, with that most ineffectual reply which
consists of simple contradiction. In those days petted, that is the
condition of a spoilt child, was applied to all perverse moods and
causeless fits of ill-temper. I do not think that in current Scots
literature, of which there are so many examples, I remember the same use
of the word now.

“Oh, but you were,” cried Elsie, laughing, “in a pet with your new
beast, and what could go further than that? I would not have been so
much surprised if you had been in a pet with Rodie or me.”

“There was occasion,” said Johnny, relapsing a little into the clouds.
“Why were you such friends with that empty-headed ass? And coming along
the sands smiling at him as if–as if—-”

“As if what?” said Elsie. She laughed again, the laugh of conscious
power. She was not perhaps so fine a character as, considering all
things, she might have been expected to be.

“Elsie,” said the young man, “it’s not me that shall name it. If it
really turns out to be something, as I think it will, I am going to call
it after you.”

“A grand compliment,” cried the girl, with another peel of laughter. “A
jeely fish! But,” she added, quickly, “I think it is awfully nice of
you, Johnny; for those are the sort of things, I know, that you like
best in the world.”




“Not quite,” said the naturalist. “There are things I care for far more
than beasts, and if you don’t know that, you are not so quick at the
uptake as I have always thought you; but what is the good when I am
nobody, and never will be anybody, if I were to howk and ferret for new
beasts till I die!”

“Bide a wee, bide a wee,” said Elsie, laughing, but confused; “you will
be a placed minister, and as good as any of them; and what could ye have
better than that?”

“I am the most unfortunate man in the world,” said Johnny, “for you know
that, which is the only way for a poor lad like me, it is not what I
want.”

“And you are not blate to say so to me that am a minister’s daughter,
and very proud of it,” cried Elsie, with a flush of offence.

“That’s just the worst of it,” said Johnny, sadly, shaking his head,
“for maybe you, and certainly other folk, will believe indeed I am not
blate, thinking too much of myself, not to be content with a kirk if I
could get one. But you should know it isn’t that. I think too little of
myself. Never could I be a man like your father, that is one of the
excellent of the earth. It is the like of him, and not the like of me,
that should be a minister. And then whatever I was, and wherever I was,”
he added, with a humility that was almost comic, “I would always have
something inside teasing me to be after the beasts all the same.”

“What are you going to do with it now?” said Elsie, looking down at the
unconscious object of all this discussion, which lay semi-transparent,
and a little dulled in the delicate mauve colour of its interesting
markings, on the bed she had made of the tangles of the dulse at her
feet.

“The first thing is, I will draw a picture of it, the best I can,” said
Johnny, rousing to something of his usual enthusiasm, “and then I will
dissect it and get at its secrets, and I will send the drawing and the
account of it to London–and then—-”

“And then?” repeated Elsie.

“I will just wait,” he said. His eyes which had been lighted up with
eagerness and spirit sank, and he shrugged his shoulders and shook his
head. “Just as likely as not I will never hear word of it more. That’s
been my fate already. I must just steel myself not to hope.”

“Johnny, do you mean that you have sent up other things like this, and
got no good of them?”

“Aye,” he said, without looking up. He was not a cheerful figure, with
his head bent on his breast, and his eyes fixed on the strange
prize–was it a mere clammy inanimate thing, or was it progress, and
fame, and fortune?–which lay at his feet. Elsie did not know what to
say.

“And you standing there with wet feet, and everything damp and cold
about you,” she cried, with a sudden outburst. “Go home this moment,
Johnny Wemyss; this time it will be different. I’m not a prophet and how
should I know? But this time it will be different. How are you to get it
home?”

He took his blue bonnet from his head, with a low laugh, and placed the
specimen in it.

“Nobody minds,” he said, smoothing down his sleeves. “I am as often
without my bonnet as with it. They say it’s only Johnny Wemyss: but I’m
not fit to walk by the side of a bonnie princess like you.”

“I am coming with you all the same,” Elsie said.

They were, indeed, a very unlikely pair. The girl in all her prettiness
of summer costume, the young man, damp, sandy, and bareheaded, carrying
his treasure. So far as the sands extended, however, there was no one to
mark the curious conjunction, and they went lightly over the firm wet
sand within high-water mark, talking little, but with a perfect
familiarity and kindness of companionship which was more exquisite than
the heats and chills through which Frank Mowbray had passed, when Elsie
for her own purposes had led him back. Elsie kept step with Johnny’s
large tread, she had an air of belonging to him which came from the
intimate intercourse of years; and though the social distinction between
the minister’s daughter and the fisherman’s son was very marked,
externally, it was evidently quite blotted out in fact by a closer
fraternity. Elsie was not ashamed of him, nor was Johnny proud of her,
so far as their difference of position was concerned. He was proud of
her in another sense, but she quite as much of him.

“I will call it ‘Princess Elsie,’” he said at last. “I will put it in
Latin: or else I will call it ‘Alicia:’ for Elsie and Alison and all are
from Alice, which is just the bonniest name in the world.”

“Nonsense,” she said, “there are many that are much bonnier. I don’t
think Alison is very bonny, it is old-fashioned; but it was my
grandmother’s name, and I like it for that.”

“It is just the bonniest name in all the world,” he repeated, softly;
but next moment they had climbed from the sands to the smooth ground
near the old castle, and from thenceforward Johnny Wemyss was the centre
of a moving group, made up of boys and girls, and an occasional golfer,
and a fisher or two, and, in short, everybody about; for Johnny Wemyss
was known to everybody, and his particular pursuits were the sport, and
interest, and pride of the town.

“He has found a new beast.”

“Oh, have you found a new beast? Oh Johnny, let us see it, let us see
it! Oh, but it’s nothing but a jeely-fish,” cried, in a number of
voices, the little crowd. Johnny walked calmly on, his bare head red in
the sunshine, with crisp short curls surrounding a forehead which was
very white in the upper part, where usually sheltered by his bonnet, and
a fine red brown mahogany tint below. Johnny was quite at his ease amid
the encircling, shouting little crowd, from out of which Elsie withdrew
at the garden gate, with a wave of her hand. He had no objection to
their questions, their jests, their cries of “Let us see it, Johnny!” It
did not in the least trouble him that he was Johnny to all the world,
and his “new beast” the diversion of the town.