Rough Scan
I THINK I wad be aboot six years auld when first I gaed to the schule. I mind fine o' my faither takin' me up the street by the haun', and into a wee bare room, where a genty bit body, caa'd Miss Macdonald, sat on a chair, in the middle o' the flaer, wi' mebbe three-and-twenty bairns aroon' her.
My faither, as I've said, was a very tall man. He had to coorie doon gaun through the lobby, and when he was in the schuleroom, staunin' afore Miss Macdonald, the croon o' his heid, I noticed, was amaist scrievin' the ceilin'. "Miss Macdonald," said he, "here's a wee callant for you. There's no' much o' him, but he's quick in the uptak, and I leave him wi' confidence in your keepin'. I want him to wag his pow in a pulpit, but dinna start him vi' Horace Straight away," and he lauched ower his shooder and left me staunin' in the middle o' the flaer.
I began to greet when I saw he had gane away, but Miss Macdonald took me up on her knee and asked me to be a wee man and no' to greet afore a' the lassies. She wipet my face and set me doon on a wee stule by the fire, and tell't ain o' the bigger yins to see that I didna tummle against the ribs.
Man, I think I see that wee room yet. It was low o' the ceilin', had a stane flaer, and fewer waa's coloured a licht green, and as bare as birkie, except for a map o' Scotland and a picter o' an elephant wi' a wee hoose on its back, oot o' which a black man was lookin'. A single desk ran alang ae side o' the waa', and this was used by the biggest o' the scholars, and three binks withoot backs held the lave.
It was lit by twae windas-a wee yin at the back and a bigger yin at the front. There were juist fower peens o' gless in the wee back yin, and, through them, I could see into a gairden where there was an aipple tree juist hingin' wi' wee red-cheeket aipples. There were floo'ers in plenty-Nancy Pretty, Sweet-William, Bachelor's Buttons, and Sidderwood, a' mixed up in a raw, borderin' a walk. Mony a lang weary look I had through that wee winda, and often, when I was sair at hert and trauchled wi' spellin's and questions, I used to watch the sparras and blackies fleein' aboot the aipple tree, and wish to guidness I had been born a bird instead o' a boy.
At first I made little progress; in fact, I micht as weel hae been at hame; but by and by I took an interest in my lessons, and wi' the help o' my faither o' a forenicht I was sune through the A B C's and into a penny book wi' great big letters and wee tottie picters.
I wad be the feck o' three years wi' Miss Macdonald, and d'ye ken this, the langer I kenned her the better I liked her. Everything aboot her was genty and denty, frae the sole o' her wee shae to the croon o' her grey heid, and a' the things she did and every word she said had a touch o' kindness and sweetness that was by-ordinar.
She had a sweet, pensive face, pale raither than coloured, and lit up by twae grey-blue een, which by ae look could either cowe the biggest and maist unruly scholar in the schule, or mak' the wee-est hame-seik bairn feel in a meenit it was juist as safe wi' her as at its mither's knee. Altho' her hair was streaked vi' grey, she wasna auld-like in the least. Her face was fresh and withoot a line, and her actions and mainners were those o' a young body; but there were times when, lost in thocht, she seemed to be leevin' some experience ower again, and then her face was a fittin' match to her streaked grey hair.
My faither had a high opinion o' her capabilities as a teacher, and a great regard for her as a woman. I mind ae nicht I was tellin' him hoo kind she had been to me, and hoe much I liket her, and he put his haun' on my heid, and says he, "Ay, Robert, my wee man, your teacher's a kind bit lassie, and she's as guid as she's bonnie; but her face tells me she's got a leevin' sorrow which maun ever be her ain."
You'll wonder why I am tellin' you a' this, but it is, what yin micht caa', leadin' up to an incident which happened at this time, and which even yet staun's oot in bold relief against the backgrun' o' thae early schulein' days.
I canna mind what faut I had been in, but at onyrate I was a "keepie in," and, efter a' the ither weans had gaen hame, I was set on a high stule in a corner wi' my face to the wa', and tell't to get off Effectual Calling without a mistake. Oh, hoo I hated thae "Quastins." The simple yins were hard enough to get off by hert and unnerstaun'; but when it cam' to "the reasons annexed" - weel, d'ye ken this, I got a scunner then at some o' the sacred words, which even to this day I have never got ower.
Weel, as I was sayin', I was sittin' there in the corner wi' my face to the wa', and the mistress was sittin' afore the fire lookin' ower some papers. She was gey intent on what she was doin', for she had forgotten a' aboot me, nor did she hear the door being softly opened and a step come quately to her side. I keekit roon', and I saw a big ill-faured lookin' man juist pittin' his haun' on her shooder.
"Weel, Mary," he said, "busy as usual?"
Man, she sprang to her feet, and wi' terror in her een she backit away frae him. She clutched at the neckband o' her frock, and when she spoke the words juist cam' in spurts.
"My God!" she said very piteously, I thocht. "You-what brings you here?"
The man lauched, and, drawin' the chair near the fire, sat doon and spread his haun's to the warmth. "Your welcome's not very hearty, Mary. Has absence not made the heart grow fonder?" And he looked roon' at her, noddin' his heid and wi' a deevelish leer in his een. It was juist as if he wanted her to ken and unnerstaun' that he was confident she was in his power, and, if that was his idea he was richt, for even to me, my puir wee teacher was juist like a moose shut up in a bandbox wi' a big tam cat.
There was nocht said for a wee, then he locket roon' again, and says he, "You want to know what brings me here. Well, Mary, it's the old, old story-stoney broke, appetite good, thirst abnormal, and the wherewithal lacking. Since last we parted I've played the dominie for a month, canvassed for a week a new edition of an illustrated Bible, helped to store the golden grain for a day and a half in a stoney rig in Ayrshire, for a period of sixty days a reluctant inmate of a Government institution in Ayr where one is expected to work in return for board and lodgings; in fact, Mary, in vulgar parlance, I've been all over the shop. Hearing that you were somewhere in Dumfriesshire, I made it my agreeable business to locate you, and, as Punch says to Judy, 'here we are.'"
"And what d'you want?" Miss Macdonald asked.
"Give me credit for wanting to see your bonnie face, my dear, and listening to the sweetness of your voice once more," and the ragged tramp-for he was little else-raise and bowed to her maist profoundly.
Miss Macdonald began to greet, quately but bitterly. "Oh, shew some pity, please. Do go and leave me," she moaned. "You hounded me out of Peebles and shamed me out of Annan. You promised the last time I gave you three pounds-my all-that you wouldn't trouble me again, and now you-"
"Ah! that reminds me, my dear, when you mention money, that I do require some of the needful. How much can you accommodate me with?"
"I haven't one penny to give you," she promptly said, wi' mair spunk and decision than yin could hae expectcd. Man, he looked at her like the very devil, and walkin' up to her he gruppit her by baith her wrists. "Mary, by God, I'm not to be trifled with. Fork out, or I'll tie you to that chair and help myself." "But," she whimpered, "you promised not to bother me again. You're hurtin' me; do please let me go and I'll give you five shillings-that's all I can spare."
"Five shillings! only five shillings!" said he, mockin' her, and afore ye could say Jock Robison he had her by the nape o' her neck.
Man, I couldna staun' it ony langer, so, quate as cheetie pussy, I got doon off the stule. He didna see me, for his back was to me, so, liftin' the big lang poker, I crept up ahin' him, and, wi' a' my micht, I gied him yin in the lirk o' his knee that made him drap like a ninepin. Wi' a yell o' pain and surprise he roonded to me, but I jouked him and oot and hame to my faither wi' the hale story.
"Poor bit lassie," said he, when he heard me oot to the end, "I've always jaloosed she had some secret grief; I'll just slip alang and see her."
Oot he gaed wi' a quicker step than usual, and wi' me followin' him like a dog. Miss Macdonald was sittin' wi' her heid on the desk when we gaed in, sabbin' and greetin', as if her hert wad brek. Withoot much fuss, and wi' a word o' encouragement noo and then frae my faither, she tell't her story-hoo that she was a mairret woman, and that this was her man, wha lang ago had left her to sterve in Glesca, hoo she had struck oot for hersel', aye to be dogget and threatened and robbed by the big naer-dae-weel, and that she had gi'en him money ower and ower again, and hoo that he had found her oot again, and was sway wi' a' she had saved for her rent, in a' aboot five pounds.
By jinks, when my faither heard a' this he was an angry man, I tell ye. But he keepet it doon afore her and clappit her on the shooder and tell't her to keep up her hert and that she wad get the money back again. Then he gaed oot and up the street, takin' me wi' him by a grup o' my haun'. At the Cross, Drover Dobie tell't him that a big tramp, walkin' wi' a limp, had, not ten meenites bygane, come oot o' the public-hoose and gaen by, in the Gashoose direction. Ower the jail brae we gaed, on oot by the end o' the toon, and, on comin' to the common yett, there we saw oor man sittin' on the roadside, wi' a mutchkin bottle in his haun'. We stoppit juist fornent him, and, says my faither to me, "Robert, is that the man?"
"Yes, that's him," said I.
"Aye, as sure as death," said I. "A' weel," said my faither, "I want to speak to him for a wee. Run away hame, like a wee man."
I made a pretence o' gaun hame, but when I got the chance I clam' the bank up into the plantin', and since there, I scudded doon the back o' the hedge till I was juist opposite them, and at a place where I could hear and see withoot bein' seen.
My faither had evidently tell't him that he knew a' that had taen place, and what he thocht o' him, for the tramp was flourishin' his stick and tellin' my faither to mind his ain business.
"Noo, look here, you big coward," I heard my faither say, "lay that stick doon. If you don't, I'll take it frae ye and break it across my knee."
But trampie was for haein' nane o' that. Insteid, he cam' on wi' a rush. But my faither closed wi' him, quicker than he expected, and, when the tramp's airm should hae been comin' doon it was gaun up in the air, and the cudgel was lyin' on the road ahint him. Walkin' slowly up, my faither lifted it and broke it ower his knee like a pipe stapple, and flung the broken bits into the wudd. "Noo," said he, "I'll hae a word or twae wi' ye," and he buckled up the wristbands o' his sleeved waistcoat. "You're a cowardly big brute, and you deserve a thrashin', but oot o' respect for the decent, hard-workin' lassie you've worried and robbed, I'll allow you to go, if you gie me back the money you've taken."
For answer, the tramp cuist his coat, and waltzin' roon my faither, tell't him to come on.
Boys, oh boys! I wish I could describe a' that then took place. Man, at first my faither juist seemed to gie him a rap here and a rap there. Sometimes he chapped him on the nose, and then on the lug, and he never seemed to move off the place where he was staunin'. Then trampie landed a stunner on my faither's cheek, and followed it up by a powerful yin on his chin. At that, I was nearly yellin' oot, for I thocht it was a' by wi' my champion, but wi' an effort I keepit quate. "Aye," said my faither, "where did ye learn that yin, my man? It wasna at a prayer meetin', I'll wager." And then he began, and as sure as death, I never saw ocht like it. My word, I was a prood son I tell ye. Every blow seemed to tell efter that, and, at last, wi' a perfect bobby-dazzler, he landed trampie yin below the jaw that made him spin like a peerie and drap like a stot. He showed nae inclination to rise, so my faither walked ower to him, and ripein' ae pouch efter anither, he cam' on the money-fower sovereigns and eichteen shillin's and tenpence, which he calmly put in his ain breek's pouch, and when the tramp could fairly unnerstaun' what had taen place, my faither tell't him if ever he cam back to Thornhill, he wad break every bane in his miserable body.
Prood! I should think I was prood o' my faither, and when Miss Macdonald got her money back she was a prood woman too. But, puir thing, she didna lang leeve in dreid o' her man, for in aboot three months efter the foregoing she got word that he had deid in some puirhoose aboot Glesca, and, as her story had, in some unaccoontable wey, got abroad in the village, she left Thornhill shortly efter, and that's hoo it cam' aboot that I was sent to be under him wha then, and ever sin syne, I've been prood to caa' the "Maister."