My solitary walks round Edinburgh have left two especial recollections in my mind; the one pleasant, the other very sad. I will speak of the latter first; it was like a leaf out of the middle of a tragedy, of which I never knew either the beginning or the end.
I was coming home one day from a tramp toward Cramond Beach, and was just on the brow of a wooded height looking towards Edinburgh and not two miles from it, when a heavy thunder-cloud darkened the sky above my head and pelted me with large drops of ominous warning. On one side of the road the iron gate and lodge of some gentleman’s park suggested shelter; and the half-open door of the latter showing a tidy, pleasant-looking woman busy at an ironing table, I ventured to ask her to let me come in till the sponge overhead should have emptied itself. She very good-humoredly consented, and I sat down while the rain rang merrily on the gravel walk before the door, and smoked in its vehement descent on the carriage-road beyond.
The woman pursued her work silently, and I presently became aware of a little child, as silent as herself, sitting beyond her, in a small wicker chair; on the baby’s table which fastened her into it were some remnants of shabby, broken toys, among which her tiny, wax-like fingers played with listless unconsciousness, while her eyes were fixed on me. The child looked wan and wasted, and had in its eyes, which it never turned from me, the weary, wistful, unutterable look of “far away and long ago” longing that comes into the miserably melancholy eyes of monkeys.
“Is the baby ill?” said I.
“Ou na, mem; it’s no to say that ill, only just always peaking and pining like”—and she stopped ironing a moment to look at the little creature.
“Is it your own baby?” said I, struck with the absence of motherly tenderness in spite of the woman’s compassionate tone and expression.
“Ou na, mem, it’s no my ain; I hae nane o’ my ain.”
“How old is it?” I went on.
“Nigh upon five year old,” was the answer, with which the ironing was steadily resumed, with apparently no desire to encourage more questions.
“Five years old!” I exclaimed, in horrified amazement: its size was that of a rickety baby under three, while its wizened face was that of a spell-struck creature of no assignable age, or the wax image of some dwindling life wasting away before the witch-kindled fire of a diabolical hatred. The tiny hands and arms were pitiably thin, and showed under the yellow skin sharp little bones no larger than a chicken’s; and at her wrists and temples the blue tracery of her veins looked like a delicate map of the blood, that seemed as if it could hardly be pulsing through her feeble frame; while below the eyes a livid shadow darkened the faded face that had no other color in it.
The tears welled up into my eyes, and the woman, seeing them, suddenly stopped ironing and exclaimed eagerly: “Ou, mem, ye ken the family; or maybe ye’ll hae been a friend of the puir thing’s mither!” I was obliged to say that I neither knew them nor any thing about them, but that the child’s piteous aspect had made me cry.