THE ADVENT OF THE CUIF
‘Here's the Cuif!’ said Meg Kissock, who with her company gown on, and her face glowing from a brisk wash, sat knitting a stocking in the rich gloaming light at the gable end of the house of Craig Ronald. Winsome usually read a book, sitting by the window which looked up the long green croft to the fir-woods and down to the quiet levels of Loch Grannoch, on which the evening mist was gathering a pale translucent blue. It was a common thing for Meg and Jessie Kissock to bring their knitting and darning there, and on their milking-stools sit below the window. If Winsome were in a mood for talk she did not read much, but listened instead to the brisk chatter of the maids. Sometimes the ploughmen, Jock Forrest and Ebie Farrish, came to ‘ca' the crack,’ and it was Winsome's delight on these occasions to listen to the flashing claymore of Meg Kissock's rustic wit. Before she settled down, Meg had taken in the three tall candles ‘ben the hoose,’ where the old people sat—Walter Skirving, as ever, silent and far away, his wife deep in some lively book lent her by the Lady Elizabeth out of the library of Greatorix Castle.
A bank of wild thyme lay just beneath Winsome's window, and over it the cows were feeding, blowing softly through their nostrils among the grass and clover till the air was fragrant with their balmy breath.
‘Guid e'en to ye, 'Cuif,'’ cried Meg Kissock as soon as Saunders Mowdiewort came within earshot. He came stolidly forward tramping through the bog with his boots newly greased with what remained of the smooth candle ‘dowp’ with which he had sleeked his flaxen locks. He wore a broad blue Kilmarnock bonnet, checked red and white in a ‘dam-brod’ pattern round the edge, and a blue-buttoned coat with broad pearl buttons. It may be well to explain that there is a latent meaning, apparent only to Galloway folk of the ancient time, in the word ‘cuif.’ It conveys at once the ideas of inefficiency and folly, of simplicity and the ignorance of it. The cuif is a feckless person of the male sex, who is a recognized butt for a whole neighbourhood to sharpen its wits upon.
The particular cuif so addressed by Meg came slowly over the knoll.
‘Guid e'en to ye,’ he said, with his best visiting manners.
‘Can ye no see me as weel, Saunders?’ said Jess, archly, for all was grist that came to her mill.
Saunders rose like a trout to the fly.
‘Ow aye, Jess, lass, I saw ye brawly, but it disna do to come seekin' twa lasses at ae time.’'
‘Dinna ye be thinkin' to put awa' Meg, an' then come coortin' me!’ said Jess, sharply.
Saunders was hurt for the moment at this pointed allusion both to his profession and also to his condition as a ‘seekin'’ widower.
‘Wha seeks you, Jess, 'ill be sair ill-aff!’ he replied very briskly for a cuif.
The sound of Meg's voice in round altercation with Jock Gordon, the privileged ‘natural’ or innocent fool of the parish, interrupted this interchange of amenities, which was indeed as friendly and as much looked for between lads and lasses as the ordinary greeting of ‘Weel, hoo's a' wi' ye the nicht?’ which began every conversation between responsible folks.
‘Jock Gordon, ye lazy ne'er-do-weel, ye hinna carried in a single peat, an' it comin' on for parritch-time. D'ye think my maister can let the like o' you sorn on him, week in, week oot, like a mawk on a sheep's hurdie? Gae wa' oot o' that, lyin' sumphin' an' sleepin' i' the middle o' the forenicht, an' carry the water for the boiler an' bring in the peats frae the stack.’
Then there arose a strange elricht quavering voice—the voice of those to whom has not been granted their due share of wits. Jock Gordon was famed all over the country for his shrewd replies to those who set their wits in contest with his. Jock is remembered on all Deeside, and even to Nithsdale. He was a man well on in years at this time, certainly not less than forty-five. But on his face there was no wrinkle set, not a fleck of gray upon his bonnetless fox-red shock of hair, weather-rusted and usually stuck full of feathers and short pieces of hay. Jock Gordon was permitted to wander as a privileged visitor through the length and breadth of the south hill country. He paid long visits to Craig Ronald, where he had a great admiration and reverence for the young mistress, and a hearty detestation for Meg Kissock, who, as he at all times asserted, ‘was the warst maister to serve atween the Cairnsmuirs.’
‘Richt weel I'll do yer biddin', Meg Kissock,’ he answered in his shrill falsetto, ‘but no for your sake or the sake o' ony belangin' to you. But there's yae bonny doo, wi' her hair like gowd, an' a fit that she micht set on Jock Gordon's neck, an' it wad please him weel. An' said she, 'Do the wark Meg Kissock bids ye,' so Jock Gordon, Lord o' Kelton Hill an' Earl o' Clairbrand, will perform a' yer wull. Otherwise it's no in any dochter o' Hurkle-backit Kissock to gar Jock Gordon move haund or fit.’
So saying, Jock clattered away with his water-pails, muttering to himself.
Meg Kissock came out again to sit down on her milking-stool under the westward window, within which was Winsome Charteris, reading her book unseen by the last glow of the red west.
Jess and Saunders Mowdiewort had fallen silent. Jess had said her say, and did not intend to exert herself to entertain her sister's admirer. Jess was said to look not unkindly on Ebie Farrish, the younger ploughman who had recently come to Craig Ronald from one of the farms at the ‘laigh’ end of the parish. Ebie had also, it was said, with better authority, a hanging eye to Jess, who had the greater reason to be kind to him, that he was the first since her return from England who had escaped the more bravura attractions of her sister.
‘Can ye no find a seat guid eneuch to sit doon on, cuif?’ inquired Meg with quite as polite an intention as though she had said, ‘Be so kind as to take a seat.’ The cuif, who had been uneasily balancing himself first on one foot and then on the other, and apologetically passing his hand over the sleek side of his head which was not covered by the bonnet, replied gratefully:
‘'Deed I wull that, Meg, since ye are sae pressin'.’
He went to the end of the milk-house, selected a small tub used for washing the dishes of red earthenware and other domestic small deer, turned it upside down, and seated himself as near to Meg as he dared. Then he tried to think what it was he had intended to say to her, but the words somehow would not now come at call. Before long he hitched his seat a little nearer, as though his present position was not quite comfortable.
But Meg checked him sharply.
‘Keep yer distance, cuif,’ she said; ‘ye smell o' the muils’ [churchyard earth].
‘Na, na, Meg, ye ken brawly I haena been howkin' since Setterday fortnicht, when I burriet Tam Rogerson's wife's guid- brither's auntie, that leeved grainin' an' deein' a' her life wi' the rheumatics an' wame disease, an' died at the last o' eatin' swine's cheek an' guid Cheddar cheese thegither at Sandy Mulquharchar's pig-killin'.’
‘Noo, cuif,’ said Meg, with an accent of warning in her voice, ‘gin ye dinna let alane deevin' us wi' yer kirkyaird clavers, ye'll no sit lang on my byne’.
From the end of the peat-stack, out of the dark hole made by the excavation of last winter's stock of fuel, came the voice of Jock Gordon, singing:
The deil he sat on the high lumtap, Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Gang yer ways and drink yer drap,Ye'll need it a' whan ye come to stap,
In my hole sae black an’ reeky, o! Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Hieland kilt an' Lawland hose, Parritch-fed an' reared on brose,
Ye'll drink nae drap whan ye come tae stap
In my hole sae black an’ reeky, O! Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Meg Kissock and her sweetheart stopped to listen. Saunders Mowdiewort smiled an unprofessional smile when he heard the song of the natural. ‘That's a step ayont the kirkyaird, Meg,’ he said. ‘Gin ye hae sic objections to hear aboot honest men in their honest graves, what say ye to that elricht craitur scraichin' aboot the verra deil an' his hearth-stane?’
Certainly it sounded more than a trifle uncanny in the gloaming, coming out of that dark place where even in the daytime the black Galloway rats cheeped and scurried, to hear the high, quavering voice of Jock Gordon singing his unearthly rhymes.
By-and-bye those at the house gable could see that the innocent had climbed to the top of the peat-stack in some elvish freak, and sat there cracking his thumbs and singing with all his might:
‘Hech how, black an’ reeky! In my hole sae black an reeky, O!’
‘Come doon oot o' that this meenit, Jock Gordon, ye gomeral!’ cried Meg, shaking her fist at the uncouth shape twisting and singing against the sunset sky like one demented.
The song stopped, and Jock Gordon slowly turned his head in their direction. All were looking towards him, except Ebie Farrish, the new ploughman, who was wondering what Jess Kissock would do if he put his arm around her waist.
‘What said ye?’ Jock asked from his perch on the top of the peat- stack.
‘Hae ye fetched in the peats an' the water, as I bade ye?’ asked Meg, with great asperity in her voice. ‘D'ye think that ye'll win aff ony the easier in the hinnerend, by sittin' up there like yin o' his ain bairns, takkin' the deil's name in vain?’
‘Gin ye dinna tak' tent to yersel', Meg Kissock,’ retorted Jock, ‘wi' yer eternal yammer o' 'Peats, Jock Gordon, an' 'Water, Jock Gordon,' ye'll maybes find yersel' whaur Jock Gordon'll no be there to serve ye; but the Ill Auld Boy'll keep ye in routh o' peats, never ye fret, Meg Kissock, wi' that reed-heed o' yours to set them a-lunt. Faith an' ye may cry 'Water! water!' till ye crack yer jaws, but nae Jock Gordon there—na, na—nae Jock Gordon there. Jock kens better.’
But at this moment there was a prolonged rumble, and the whole party sitting by the gable end (the ‘gavel,’ as it was locally expressed) rose to their feet from tub and hag-clog and milking- stool. There had been a great land-slip. The whole side of the peat-stack had tumbled bodily into the great ‘black peat-hole’ from which the winter's peats had come, and which was a favourite lair of Jock's own, being ankle-deep in fragrant dry peat ‘coom’— which is, strange to say, a perfectly clean and even a luxurious bedding, far to be preferred as a couch to ‘flock’ or its kindred abominations.
All the party ran forward to see what had become of Jock, whose song had come to so swift a close.
Out of the black mass of down-fallen peat there came a strange, pleading voice.
‘O guid deil, O kind deil, dinna yirk awa' puir Jock to that ill bit—puir Jock, that never yet did ye ony hairm, but aye wished ye weel! Lat me aff this time, braw deil, an' I'll sing nae mair ill gangs aboot ye!’
‘Save us!’ exclaimed Meg Kissock, ‘the craitur's prayin' to the Ill Body himsel'.’
Ebbie Farrish began to clear away the peat, which was, indeed, no difficult task. As he did so, the voice of Jock Gordon mounted higher and higher:
‘O mercy me, I hear them clawin' and skrauchelin'! Dinna let the wee yins wi' the lang riven taes and the nebs like gleds get haud o' me! I wad rayther hae yersel', Maister o' Sawtan, for ye are a big mensefu' deil. Ouch! I'm dune for noo, althegither; he haes gotten puir Jock! Sirce me, I smell the reekit rags o' him!’
But it was only Ebie Farrish that had him by the roll of ancient cloth which served as a collar for Jock's coat. When he was pulled from under the peats and set upon his feet, he gazed around with a bewildered look.
‘O man, Ebie Farrish,’ he said solemnly, ‘If I didna think ye war the deil himsel'—ye see what it is to be misled by ootward appearances!’
There was a shout of laughter at the expense of Ebie, in which Meg thought that she heard an answering ripple from within Winsome's room.
‘Surely, Jock, ye were never prayin' to the deil?’ asked Meg from the window, very seriously. ‘Ye ken far better than that.’
‘An' what for should I no pray to the deil? He's a desperate onsonsy chiel yon. It's as weel to be in wi' him as oot wi' him ony day. Wha' kens what's afore them, or wha they may be behaudin' to afore the morrow's morn?’ answered Jock stoutly.
‘But d'ye ken,’ said John Scott, the theological herd, who had quietly ‘daundered doon’ as he said, from his cot-house up on the hill, where his bare-legged bairns played on the heather and short grass all day, to set his shoulder against the gable end for an hour with the rest.
‘D'ye ken what Maister Welsh was sayin' was the new doctrine amang thae New Licht Moderates—'hireling shepherds,' he ca'd them? Noo I'm no on mysel' wi' sae muckle speakin' aboot the deil. But the minister was sayin' that the New Moderates threep [assert] that there's nae deil at a'. He dee'd some time since!’
‘Gae wa' wi' ye, John Scott! wha's gaun aboot doin' sae muckle ill then, I wad like to ken?’ said Meg Kissock.
‘Dinna tell me,’ said Jock Gordon, ‘that the puir deil's deed, and that we'll hae to pit up wi' Ebie Farrish. Na, na, Jock's maybe daft, but he kens better than that!’
‘They say,’ said John Scott, pulling meditatively at his cutty, ‘that the pooer is vested noo in a kind o' comy-tee [committee]!’
‘I dinna haud wi' comy-tees mysel',’ replied Meg; ‘it's juist haein' mony maisters, ilka yin mair cankersome and thrawn than anither!’
‘Weel, gin this news be true, there's a heep o' fowk in this parish should be mentioned in his wull,’ said Jock Gordon, significantly. ‘They're near kin till him—forby a heep o' bairns that he has i' the laich-side o' the loch. They're that hard there, they'll no gie a puir body a meal o' meat or the shelter o' a barn.’
‘But,’ said Ebie Farrish, who had been thinking that, after all, the new plan might have its conveniences, ‘gin there's nae deil to tempt, there'll be nae deil to punish.’
But the herd was a staunch Marrow man. He was not led away by any human criticism, nor yet by the new theology.
‘New Licht here, New Licht there,’ he said; ‘I canna' pairt wi' ma deil. Na, na, that's ower muckle to expect o' a man o' my age!’
Having thus defined his theological position, without a word more he threw his soft checked plaid of Galloway wool over his shoulders, and fell into the herd's long swinging heather step, mounting the steep brae up to his cot on the hillside as easily as if he were walking along a level road.
There was a long silence; then a ringing sound, sudden and sharp, and Ebie Farrish fell inexplicably from the axe-chipped hag-clog, which he had rolled up to sit upon. Ebie had been wondering for more than an hour what would happen if he put his arm round Jess Kissock's waist. He knew now.
Then, after a little Saunders Mowdiewort, who was not unmindful of his prearranged programme nor yet oblivious of the flight of time, saw the stars come out, he knew that if he were to make any progress, he must make haste; so he leaned over towards his sweetheart and whispered, ‘Meg, my lass, ye're terrible bonny.’
‘D'ye think ye are the first man that has telled me that, cuif?’ said Meg, with point and emphasis.
Jock Forrest, the senior ploughman—a very quiet, sedate man with a seldom stirred but pretty wit, laughed a short laugh, as though he knew something about that. Again there was a silence, and as the night wind began to draw southward in cool gulps of air off the hills, Winsome Charteris's window was softly closed.
‘Hae ye nocht better than that to tell us, cuif?’ said Meg, briskly, ‘nocht fresh-like?’
‘Weel,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort, groping round for a subject of general interest, his profession and his affection being alike debarred, ‘there's that young Enbra' lad that's come till the manse. He's a queer root, him.’
‘What's queer aboot him?’ asked Meg, in a semi-belligerent manner. A young man who had burned his fingers for her mistress's sake must not be lightly spoken of.
‘Oh, nocht to his discredit ava, only Manse Bell heard him arguin' wi' the minister aboot the weemen-folk the day that he cam'. He canna' bide them, she says.’
‘He has but puir taste,’ said Ebie Farrish; ‘a snod bit lass is the bonniest work o' Natur'. Noo for mysel'—’
‘D'ye want anither?’ asked Jess, without apparent connection.
‘He'll maybe mend o' that opeenion, as mony a wise man has dune afore him,’ said Meg, sententiously. ‘Gae on, cuif; what else aboot the young man?’
‘Oh, he's a lad o' great lear. He can read ony language back or forrit, up or doon, as easy as suppin' sowens. He can speak byordinar' graund. They say he'll beat the daddy o' him for preachin' when he's leecensed. He rade Birsie this mornin' too, after the kickin' randie had cuist me aff his back like a draff sack.’
‘Then what's queer aboot him?’ said Jess.
Meg said nothing. She felt a draft of air suck into Winsome's room, so that she knew that the subject was of such interest that her mistress had again opened her window. Meg leaned back so far that she could discern a glint of yellow hair in the darkness.
The cuif was about to light his pipe. Meg stopped him.
‘Nane o' yer lichts here, cuif,’ she said; ‘it's time ye were thinkin' aboot gaun ower the hill. But ye haena' telled us yet what's queer aboot the lad.’
‘Weel, woman, he's aye write—writin', whiles on sheets o' paper, and whiles on buiks.’
‘There's nocht queer aboot that,’ says Meg; ‘so does ilka minister.’
‘But Manse Bell gied me ane o' his writings, that she had gotten aboot his bedroom somewhere. She said that the wun' had blawn't aff his table, but I misdoot her.’
‘Yer ower great wi' Manse Bell an' the like o' her, for a man that comes to see me!’ said Meg, who was a very particular young woman indeed.
‘It was cuttit intil lengths like the metre psalms, but it luikit gye an' daft like, sae I didna' read it,’ said the cuif hastily.
‘Here it's to ye, Meg. I was e'en gaun to licht my cutty wi't.’
Something shone gray-white in Saunders's hand as he held it out to Meg, It passed into Meg's palm, and then was seen no more.
The session at the house end was breaking up. Jess had vanished silently. Ebie Farrish was not. Jock Forrest had folded his tent and stolen away. Meg and Saunders were left alone. It was his supreme opportunity.
He leaned over towards his sweetheart. His blue bonnet had fallen to the ground, and there was a distinct odour of warm candle- grease in the air.
‘Meg,’ he said, ‘yer maist amazin' bonny, an' I'm that fond o' ye that I am faain' awa' frae my meat! O Meg, woman, I think o' ye i' the mornin' afore the Lord's Prayer, I sair misdoot! Guid forgie me! I find mysel' whiles wonderin' gin I'll see ye the day afore I can gang ower in my mind the graves that's to howk, or gin Birsie's oats are dune. O Meg, Meg, I'm that fell fond o' ye that I gruppit that thrawn speldron Birsie's hint leg juist i' the fervour o' thinkin' o' ye.’
‘Hoo muckle hae ye i' the week?’ said Meg, practically, to bring the matter to a point.
‘A pound a week,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort, promptly, who though a cuif was a business man, ‘an' a cottage o' three rooms wi' a graun' view baith back an' front!’
‘Ow aye,’ said Meg, sardonically, ‘I ken yer graund view. It's o' yer last wife's tombstane, wi' the inscriptions the length o' my airm aboot Betty Mowdiewort an' a' her virtues, that Robert Paterson cuttit till ye a year past in Aprile. Na, na, ye'll no get me to leeve a' my life lookin' oot on that ilk' time I wash my dishes. It wad mak' yin be wantin' to dee afore their time to get sic-like. Gang an' speer Manse Bell. She's mair nor half blind onyway, an' she's fair girnin' fain for a man, she micht even tak' you.’
With these cruel words Meg lifted her milking-stool and vanished within. The cuif sat for a long time on his byne lost in thought. Then he arose, struck his flint and steel together, and stood looking at the tinder burning till it went out, without having remembered to put it to the pipe which he held in his other hand. After the last sparks ran every way and flickered, he threw the glowing red embers on the ground, kicked the pail on which he had been sitting as solemnly as if he had been performing a duty to the end of the yard, and then stepped stolidly into the darkness.
The hag-clog was now left alone against the wall beneath Winsome's window, within which there was now the light of a candle and a waxing and waning shadow on the blind as someone went to and fro. Then there was a sharp noise as of one clicking in the ‘steeple’ or brace of the front door (which opened in two halves), and then the metallic grit of the key in the lock, for Craig Ronald was a big house, and not a mere farm which might be left all night with unbarred portals.
Winsome stepped lightly to her own door, which opened without noise. She looked out and said, in a compromise between a coaxing whisper and a voice of soft command:
‘Meg, I want ye.’
Meg Kissock came along the passage with the healthy glow of the night air on her cheeks, and her candle in her hand. She seemed as if she would pause at the door, but Winsome motioned her imperiously within. So Meg came within, and Winsome shut to the door. Then she simply held out her hand, at which Meg gazed as silently.
‘Meg!’ said Winsome, warningly.
A queer, faint smile passed momentarily over the face of Winsome's handmaid, as though she had been long trying to solve some problem and had suddenly and unexpectedly found the answer. Slowly she lifted up her dark-green druggit skirt, and out of a pocket of enormous size, which was swung about her waist like a captured leviathan heaving inanimate on a ship's cable, she extracted a sheet of crumpled paper.
Winsome took it without a word. Her eye said ‘Good-night’ to Meg as plain as the minister's text.
Meg Kissock waited till she was at the door, and then, just as she was making her silent exit, she said:
‘Ye'll tak' as guid care o't as the ither yin ye fand. Ye can pit them baith thegither.’
Winsome took a step towards her as if with some purpose of indignant chastisement. But the red head and twinkling eyes of mischief vanished, and Winsome stood with the paper in her hand. Just as she had begun to smooth out the crinkles produced by the hands of Manse Bell who could not read it, Saunders who would not, and Meg Kissock who had not time to read it, the head of the last named was once more projected into the room, looking round the edge of the rose-papered door.
‘Ye'll mak' a braw mistress o' the manse, Mistress—Ralph—Peden!’ she said, nodding her head after each proper name.
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.