PLAIN WORDS UPON MEN
‘Heighty-teighty,’ said Jean Gordon, of the Shirmers, coming in to me with a breakfast piece one morning as soon as she heard that I was awake. ‘The silly folks keep on bletherin' that I cam' awa' here to dee for love. Weel, I hae leeved forty year in Jean's cot o' the Garpel and I'm no dead yet. I wat no! I cam' here to be oot o' the men's road. Noo, there's my sister ower by at Barscobe. She was muckle the better o' a man, was she no? Never sure whether he wad come hame sober and weel conditioned frae kirk or market. In the fear o' her life every time that she heard the soond o' his voice roarin' in the yaird, to ken what was crossin' him, and in what fettle the wee barn-door Almichty wad be pleased to come ben-the-hoose in! Wadna the like o' that be a bonny exchange for the peace and quaitness o' the Garpel side?’
And the old lady shook the white trimmings of her cap, which was daintily and fairly goffered at the edges. ‘Na, na,’ she said, ‘yince bitten, twice shy. I hae had eneuch o' men—nesty, saucy, ill-favoured characters. Wi' half a nose on ye, ye can tell as easy gin yin o' them be in the hoose, as gin he hed been a tod!’
‘And am I not a man, Aunty Jean?’ I asked, for indeed she had been very kind to me.
‘Hoot, a laddie like you is no a man. Nae beard like bristles, nae luntin' stinkin' pipes an' a skin like my lady's—that's no a man. By my silk hose and shoe strings, gin I get as muckle as the wind o' a man body atween me and the Bogue road, I steek baith the inner and the outer doors to keep awa' the waff o' the brock. Foul fa' them every yin!’
This made me laugh, indeed; but after all it did not please me greatly to hear that I was taken for less than a man.
‘Now there's Sandy,’ she went on, for she ever loved to talk, ‘he's a great senseless sturdy o' a craitur. Yet he could get a' the wives he wants, by just coming doon like a tod aff the hill, and takin' yin below his oxter. An' the puir bit bleatin' hizzie wad think she likit it. Lord! some folk tak' a man as they tak' a farm, by the acre. But no me—no me. Na! Gin I was thinkin' o' men, the bonny ticht lad is the lad for me; the lad wi' the cockade set in his bonnet an' a leg weel shapit; neither bowed out frae the knees like haystack props, nor yet bent in like a cooper ridin' on the riggin' o' a barrel.’
‘But what for did ye no tak' yin then?’ I said, speaking through the door of the spence as she moved about the house, ordering the porridge-making and keeping an eye on the hen's meat as well.
It eased my heavy thought, to hear the heartsome clip of her tongue—for all the world like a tailor's shears, brisker when it comes to the selvage. So when Jean Gordon got in sight of the end of her sentence, she snipped out her words with a glibness beyond any Gordon that ever I heard of. For the Gordons are, according to proverb, slow people with their tongues, save as they say by two and two at the canny hour of e'en.
But never slow at morn or mirk was our Aunt Jean of Wa's by the Garpel burn.
‘It's a strange thing,’ she said, looking through the hall door at me, ‘that you an' me can crack like twa wives that hae gotten their men out o' the hearin'. My lad, I fear ye will creep into women's hearts because ye make them vexed for ye. Ye hae sic innocent ways. Oh, I doot na but it's the guile o' ye; but it was ever sae.
‘Mony a mewlin', peuterin' body has great success wi' the weemen folk. They think it's a peety that he should be so innocent, an' they tak' haud o' the craitur, juist to keep off the ither designin' weeman. Oh, I'm far frae denyin' that we are a pack o' silly craiturs. A'thing that wears willy-coats; no yin muckle to better anither!’
‘But aboot yoursel', Aunty Jean?’ I ventured, in order to stir her to reckless speech, which was like fox-hunting to me.
‘Wha? Me? Certes, no! I gat the stoor oot o' my e'en braw an' early. I took the cure-all betimes, as the lairds tak' their mornin' o' French brandy. When Tam Lindsay gaed aff wi' his fleein' flagarie o' a muckle-tochered Crawford lass, I vowed that I wad hae dune wi' men. An' so I had!
‘Whenever a loon cam' here in his best breeks, and a hingin' look in the e'e o' the craitur that meant courtin', faith, I juist set the dowgs on the scullion. I keepit a fearsome tyke on purpose, wi' a jaw ontill him like Jonah's whale. Aye, aye, mony's the braw lad that has gane doon that brae, wi' Auld Noll ruggin' an' reevin' at the hinderlands o' him—bonny it was to see!’
‘Did ye think, as ye watched them gang, that it was your Lindsay, Aunty Jean?’ I asked; for, indeed, her well-going talk eased my heart in the midst of so many troubles. For I declare that during these thirty years in Scotland, and especially in the Glenkens, folk had almost forgotten the way to laugh.
‘Na, na, callant,’ so she would say to me in return, ‘I ne'er blamed him sair ava'. Tam Lindsay was never sair fashed wi' sense a' the days o' his life—at least no to hurt him, ony mair nor yersel', as yin micht say. It was the Crawford woman and her weel-feathered nest that led him awa', like a bit silly cuddie wi' a carrot afore his nose. But I'll never deny the randy that she was clever; for she took the craitur's size at the first look, as neat as if she had been measurin' him for a suit o' claes. But she did what I never did, or my name had been Jean Lindsay this day. The Lord in His mercy be thankit continually that it is as it is, and that I hae nae auld dotard, grumphin' an' snortin' at the chimley lug. She cuitled Tam Lindsay an' flairdied him an' spak' him fair, till the poor fathom o' pump water thocht himsel' the brawest lad in braid Scotland. Faith, I wadna sae bemean mysel' to get the king oot o' Whitehall—wha they tell me is no that ill to get, gin yin had the chance—and in muckle the same way as Tam Lindsay. Oh, what a set o' blind, brainless, handless, guid-for-naethings are men!’
‘It was with that ye began, Aunty Jean,’ I said.
‘Aye, an' I shall end wi' it too,’ she answered. ‘I'm no theology learned, but it looks terribly like as if the rib story were gye near the truth. For the poorest o' weemen can mak' a great muckle oot o' a very little, an' the best o' men are sadly troubled wi' a sair want. I misdoot that Aydam maun hae missed mair nor the rib when he waukened.’
My pleasant time in the cottage by the Garpel came all too soon to an end. It is, indeed, a rare and heartsome place to bide in on a summer's day. There is the sound of the birds singing, the plash of the water into the pool beneath the Holy Linn, where the ministers held the great baptizing of bairns, when the bonny burn water dropped of its own accord on their brows as their fathers held them up. There are the leaves rubbing against one another with a pleasant soughing noise. These kept my heart stirring and content as long as I abode in the Glen of the Garpel.
There is in particular one little hill with a flat top, from which one may spy both up and down the Glen, yet be hidden under the leaves. Here I often frequented to go, though Sandy warned me that this would be my death. Yet I liked it best of all places in the daytime, and lay there prone on my belly for many hours together, very content, chewing sorrel, clacking my heels together, and letting on that I was meditating. But, indeed, I never could look at water slipping away beneath me, without letting it bear my thoughts with it and leave me to the dreaming. And the Garpel is an especially pleasant burn to watch thus running from you. I have had the same feelings in church when the sermon ran rippleless and even over my head.
The only thing that annoyed me was that on the Sabbath days the Garpel became a great place for lovers to convene. And above all, at one angle behind Jean Gordon's cot, there is a bower planted with wild flowers—pleasant and retired doubtless, for them that are equipped with a lass. But as for me, I pleased myself by thinking that one day I should shape to bring Maisie Lennox there to see my hiding-place, for, as a little maid, she ever loved woods that rustle and waters that flow softly. So chiefly on the Sabbath I kept close in my covert with a book; but whether from motives of safety or envy, it misliketh me to tell.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.