From Bog Myrtle and Peat:
THE LAST ANDERSON OF DEESIDE
‘Weel, he's won awa'!’
‘Ay, ay, he is that!’
The minister's funeral was winding slowly out of the little manse loaning. The window-blinds were all down, and their bald whiteness, like sightless eyes looking out of the white-washed walls and the trampled snow, made the Free Church manse of Deeside no cheerful picture that wild New Year's Day. The green gate which had so long hung on one hinge, periodically mended ever since the minister's son broke the other swinging on it the summer of the dry year before he went to college, now swayed forward with a miserably forlorn lurch, as though it too had tried to follow the funeral procession of the man who had shut it carefully the last thing before he went to bed every night for forty years.
Andrew Malcolm, the Glencairn joiner, who was conducting the funeral—if, indeed, Scots funerals can ever be said to be conducted—had given it a too successful push to let the rickety hearse have plenty of sea-room between the granite pillars. It was a long and straggling funeral, silent save for the words that stand at the opening of this tale, which ran up and down the long black files like the irregular fire of skirmishers.
‘Ay, man, he's won awa'!’
‘Ay, ay, he is that!’
This is the Scottish Lowland ‘coronach,’ characteristic and expressive as the wailing of the pipes to the Gael or the keening of women among the wild Eirionach.
‘We are layin' the last o' the auld Andersons o' Deeside amang the mools the day,’ said Saunders M'Quhirr, the farmer of Drumquhat, to his friend Rob Adair of the Mains of Deeside, as they walked sedately together, neither swinging his arms as he would have done on an ordinary day. Saunders had come all the way over Dee Water to follow the far-noted man of God to his rest.
‘There's no siccan men noo as the Andersons o' Deeside,’ said Rob Adair, with a kind of pride and pleasure in his voice. ‘I'm a dale aulder than you, Saunders, an' I mind weel o' the faither o' him that's gane.’ (Rob had in full measure the curious South-country disinclination to speak directly of the dead.)
‘Ay, an angry man he was that day in the '43 when him that's a cauld corp the day, left the kirk an' manse that his faither had pitten him intil only the year afore. For, of coorse, the lairds o' Deeside were the pawtrons o' the pairish; an' when the auld laird's yae son took it intil his head to be a minister, it was in the nature o' things that he should get the pairish.
‘Weel, the laird didna speak to his son for the better part o' twa year; though mony a time he drave by to the Pairish Kirk when his son was haudin' an ootdoor service at the Auld Wa's where the three roads meet. For nae sicht could they get on a' Deeside for kirk or manse, because frae the Dullarg to Craig Ronald a' belanged to the laird. The minister sent the wife an' bairns to a sma' hoose in Cairn Edward, an' lodged himsel' amang sic o' the farmers as werena feared for his faither's factor. Na, an' speak to his son the auld man wadna, for the very dourness o' him. Ay, even though the minister wad say to his faither, 'Faither, wull ye no' speak to yer ain son?' no' ae word wad he answer, but pass him as though he hadna seen him, as muckle as to say—'Nae son o' mine!'
‘But a week or twa after the minister had lost yon twa nice bairns wi' the scarlet fever, his faither an' him forgathered at the fishin'—whaur he had gane, thinkin' to jook the sair thochts that he carried aboot wi' him, puir man. They were baith keen fishers an' graun' at it. The minister was for liftin' his hat to his faither an' gaun by, but the auld man stood still in the middle o' the fit-pad wi' a gey queer look in his face. 'Wattie!' he said, an' for ae blink the minister thocht that his faither was gaun to greet, a thing that he had never seen him do in a' his life. But the auld man didna greet. 'Wattie,' says he to his son, 'hae ye a huik?'
‘Ay, Saunders, that was a' he said, an' the minister juist gied him the huik and some half-dizzen fine flees forbye, an' the twa o' them never said Disruption mair as lang as they leeved.
‘'Ye had better see the factor aboot pittin' up a meetin'-hoose and a decent dwallin', gin ye hae left kirk and manse!' That was a' that the auld laird ever said, as his son gaed up stream and he down.
‘Ay, he's been a sair-tried man in his time, your minister, but he's a' by wi't the day,’ continued Saunders M'Quhirr, as they trudged behind the hearse.
‘Did I ever tell ye, Rob, aboot seem' young Walter—his boy that gaed wrang, ye ken—when I was up in London the year afore last? Na? 'Deed, I telled naebody binna the mistress. It was nae guid story to tell on Deeside!
‘Weel, I was up, as ye ken, at Barnet Fair wi' some winter beasts, so I bade a day or twa in London, doin' what sma' business I had, an' seein' the sichts as weel, for it's no' ilka day that a Deeside body finds themsel's i' London.
‘Ae nicht wha should come in but a Cairn Edward callant that served his time wi' Maxwell in the Advertiser office. He had spoken to me at the show, pleased to see a Gallawa' face, nae doot. And he telled me he was married an' workin' on the Times. An' amang ither things back an' forrit, he telled me that the minister o' Deeside's son was here. 'But,' says he, 'I'm feared that he's comin' to nae guid.' I kenned that the laddie hadna been hame to his faither an' his mither for a maitter o' maybe ten year, so I thocht that I wad like to see the lad for his faither's sake. So in a day or twa I got his address frae the reporter lad, an' fand him after a lang seek doon in a gey queer place no' far frae where Tammas Carlyle leeves, near the water-side. I thocht that there was nae ill bits i' London but i' the East-end; but I learned different.
‘I gaed up the stair o' a wee brick hoose nearly tumlin' doon wi' its ain wecht—a perfect rickle o' brick—an' chappit. A lass opened the door after a wee, no' that ill-lookin', but toosy aboot the heid an' unco shilpit aboot the face.
‘'What do you want?' says she, verra sharp an' clippit in her mainner o' speech.
‘'Does Walter Anderson o' Deeside bide here?' I asked, gey an' plain, as ye ken a body has to speak to thae Englishers that barely can understand their ain language.
‘'What may you want with him?' says she.
‘'I come frae Deeside,' says I—no' that I meaned to lichtly my ain pairish, but I thocht that the lassie micht no' be acquant wi' the name o' Whunnyliggate. 'I come frae Deeside, an' I ken Walter Anderson's faither.'
‘'That's no recommend,' says she. 'The mair's the peety,' says I, 'for he's a daicent man.'
‘So she took ben my name, that I had nae cause to be ashamed o', an' syne she brocht word that I was to step in. So ben I gaed, an' it wasna a far step, eyther, for it was juist ae bit garret room; an' there on a bed in the corner was the minister's laddie, lookin' nae aulder than when he used to swing on the yett an' chase the hens. At the verra first glint I gat o' him I saw that Death had come to him, and come to bide. His countenance was barely o' this earth—sair disjaskit an' no' manlike ava'—mair like a lassie far gane in a decline; but raised-like too, an' wi' a kind o' defiance in it, as if he was darin' the Almichty to His face. O man, Rob, I hope I may never see the like again.’
‘Ay, man, Saunders, ay, ay!’ said Rob Adair, who, being a more demonstrative man than his friend, had been groping in the tail of his ‘blacks’ for the handkerchief that was in his hat. Then Rob forgot, in the pathos of the story, what he was searching for, and walked for a considerable distance with his hand deep in the pocket of his tail-coat.
The farmer of Drumquhat proceeded on his even way.
‘The lassie that I took to be his wife (but I asked nae questions) was awfu' different ben the room wi' him frae what she was wi' me at the door—fleechin' like wi' him to tak' a sup o' soup. An' when I gaed forrit to speak to him on the puir bit bed, she cam' by me like stour, wi' the water happin' off her cheeks, like hail in a simmer thunder-shoo'er.’
‘Puir bit lassockie!’ muttered Rob Adair, who had three daughters of his own at home, as he made another absent-minded and unsuccessful search for his handkerchief. ‘There's a smurr o' rain beginnin' to fa', I think,’ he said, apologetically.
‘An' ye're Sandy MacWhurr frae Drumquhat,' says the puir lad on the bed. 'Are your sugar-plums as guid as ever?'
‘What a quastion to speer on a dying bed, Saunders!’ said Rob.
‘'Deed, ye may say it. Weel, frae that he gaed on talkin' aboot hoo Fred Robson an' him stole the hale o' the Drumquhat plooms ae back-end, an' hoo they gat as far as the horse waterin'-place wi' them when the dogs gat after them. He threepit that it was me that set the dogs on, but I never did that, though I didna conter him. He said that Fred an' him made for the seven-fit march dike, but hadna time to mak' ower it. So there they had to sit on the tap o' a thorn-bush in the meadow on their hunkers, wi' the dogs fair loupin' an' yowlin' to get haud o' them. Then I cam' doon mysel' an' garred them turn every pooch inside oot. He minded, too, that I was for hingin' them baith up by the heels, till what they had etten followed what had been in their pooches. A' this he telled juist as he did when he used to come ower to hae a bar wi' the lassies, in the forenichts after he cam' hame frae the college the first year. But the lad was laughin' a' the time in a way I didna like. It wasna natural—something hard an' frae the teeth oot, as ye micht say—maist peetifu' in a callant like him, wi' the deid-licht shinin' already in the blue een o' him.’
‘D'ye no' mind, Saunders, o' him comin' hame frae the college wi' a hantle o' medals an' prizes?’ said Rob Adair, breaking in as if he felt that he must contribute his share to the memories which shortened, if they did not cheer, their road. ‘His faither was rael prood o' him, though it wasna his way to say muckle. But his mither could talk aboot naething else, an' carriet his picture aboot wi' her a' ower the pairish in her wee black retical basket. Fegs, a gipsy wife gat a saxpence juist for speerin' for a sicht o' it, and cryin', 'Blessings on the laddie's bonny face!'’
‘Weel,’ continued Saunders, imperturbably taking up the thread of his narrative amid the blattering of the snow, ‘I let the lad rin on i' this way for a while, an' then says I, 'Walter, ye dinna ask after yer faither!'
‘'No, I don't,' says he, verra short. 'Nell, gie me the draught.' So wi' that the lassie gied her een a bit quick dab, syne cam' forrit, an' pittin' her airm aneath his heid she gied him a drink. Whatever it was, it quaitened him, an' he lay back tired-like.
‘'Weel,' said I, after a wee, 'Walter, gin ye'll no' speer for yer faither, maybe ye'll speer for yer ain mither?'
‘Walter Anderson turned his heid to the wa'. 'Oh, my mither! my ain mither!' he said, but I could hardly hear him sayin' it. Then more fiercely than he had yet spoken he turned on me an' said, 'Wha sent ye here to torment me before my time?'
* * *
‘I saw young Walter juist yince mair in life. I stepped doon to see him the next mornin' when the end was near. He was catchin' and twitchin' at the coverlet, liftin' up his hand an' lookin' at it as though it was somebody else's. It was a black fog outside, an' even in the garret it took him in his throat till he couldna get breath.
‘He motioned for me to sit doon beside him. There was nae chair, so I e'en gat doon on my knees. The lass stood white an' quaite at the far side o' the bed. He turned his een on me, blue an' bonnie as a bairn's; but wi' a licht in them that telled he had eaten o' the tree o' knowledge, and that no' seldom.
‘O Sandy,' he whispered, 'what a mess I've made o't, haven't I? You'll see my mither when ye gang back to Deeside. Tell her it's no' been so bad as it has whiles lookit. Tell her I've aye loved her, even at the warst—an'—an' my faither too!' he said, with a kind o' grip in his words.
‘Walter,' says I, 'I'll pit up a prayer, as I'm on my knees onyway.' I'm no' giftit like some, I ken; but, Robert, I prayed for that laddie gaun afore his Maker as I never prayed afore or since. And when I spak' aboot the forgiein' o' sin, the laddie juist steekit his een an' said 'Amen!'
‘That nicht as the clock was chappin' twal' the lassie cam' to my door (an' the landlady wasna that weel pleased at bein' raised, eyther), an' she askit me to come an' see Walter, for there was naebody else that had kenned him in his guid days. So I took my stave an' my plaid an' gaed my ways wi' her intil the nicht—a' lichtit up wi' lang raws o' gas-lamps, an' awa' doon by the water-side whaur the tide sweels black aneath the brigs. Man, a big lichtit toun at nicht is far mair lanesome than the Dullarg muir when it's black as pit-mirk. When we got to the puir bit hoosie, we fand that the doctor was there afore us. I had gotten him brocht to Walter the nicht afore. But the lassie was nae sooner within the door than she gied an unco-like cry, an' flang hersel' distrackit on the bed. An' there I saw, atween her white airms and her tangled yellow hair, the face o' Walter Anderson, the son o' the manse o' Deeside, lyin' on the pillow wi' the chin tied up in a napkin!
‘Never a sermon like that, Robert Adair!’ said Saunders M'Quhirr solemnly, after he had paused a moment.
Saunders and Robert were now turning off the wind-swept muir-road into the sheltered little avenue which led up to the kirk above the white and icebound Dee Water. The aged gravedigger, bent nearly double, met them where the roads parted. A little farther up the newly elected minister of the parish kirk stood at the manse door, in which Walter Anderson had turned the key forty years ago for conscience' sake.
Very black and sombre looked the silent company of mourners who now drew together about the open grave—a fearsome gash on the white spread of the new-fallen snow. There was no religious service at the minister's grave save that of the deepest silence. Ranked round the coffin, which lay on black bars over the grave-mouth, stood the elders, but no one of them ventured to take the posts of honour at the head and the foot. The minister had left not one of his blood with a right to these positions. He was the last Anderson of Deeside.
‘Preserve us! wha's yon they're pittin' at the fit o' the grave? Wha can it be ava?’ was whispered here and there back in the crowd. ‘It's Jean Grier's boy, I declare—him that the minister took oot o' the puirhoose, and schuled and colleged baith. Weel, that cowes a'! Saw ye ever the like o' that?’
It was to Rob Adair that this good and worthy thought had come. In him more than in any of his fellow-elders the dead man's spirit lived. He had sat under him all his life, and was sappy with his teaching. Some would have murmured had they had time to complain, but no one ventured to say nay to Rob Adair as he pushed the modest, clear-faced youth into the vacant place.
Still the space at the head of the grave was vacant, and for a long moment the ceremony halted as if waiting for a manifestation. With a swift, sudden startle the coil of black cord, always reserved for the chief mourner, slipped off the coffin-lid and fell heavily into the grave.
‘He's there afore his faither,’ said Saunders M'Quhirr.
So sudden and unexpected was the movement, that, though the fall of the cord was the simplest thing in the world, a visible quiver passed through the bowed ranks of the bearers. ‘It was his ain boy Wattie come to lay his faither's heid i' the grave!’ cried Daft Jess, the parish ‘natural,’ in a loud sudden voice from the ‘thruch’ stone near the kirkyaird wall where she stood at gaze.
And there were many there who did not think it impossible.
As the mourners ‘skailed’ slowly away from the kirkyaird in twos and threes, there was wonderment as to who should have the property, for which the late laird and minister had cared so little. There were very various opinions; but one thing was quite universally admitted, that there would be no such easy terms in the matter of rent and arrears as there had been in the time of ‘him that's awa'.’ The snow swept down with a biting swirl as the groups scattered and the mourners vanished from each other's sight, diving singly into the eddying drifts as into a great tent of many flapping folds. Grave and quiet is the Scottish funeral, with a kind of simple manfulness as of men in the presence of the King of Terrors, but yet possessing that within them which enables every man of them to await without unworthy fear the Messenger who comes but once. On the whole, not so sad as many things that are called mirthful.
So the last Anderson of Deeside, and the best of all their ancient line, was gathered to his fathers in an equal sleep that snowy January morning. There were two inches of snow in the grave when they laid the coffin in. As Saunders said, ‘Afore auld Elec could get him happit, his Maister had hidden him like Moses in a windin'-sheet o' His ain.’ In the morning, when Elec went hirpling into the kirkyaird, he found at the grave-head a bare place which the snow had not covered. Then some remembered that, hurrying by in the rapidly darkening gloaming of the night after the funeral, they had seen some one standing immovable by the minister's grave in the thickly drifting snow. They had wondered why he should stand there on such a bitter night.
There were those who said that it was just the lad Archibald Grier, gone to stand a while by his benefactor's grave.
But Daft Jess was of another opinion.
(This story is posted in friendship for Pat, and in memory of Sandy. )