~CHAPTER VI~ WHEN I speak o' my signboard and my bank accoont in ae breath as it were, ye maunna rin away wi' the idea that I got them juist when my time was oot. Dod, no! things didna come to me sae easy as a' that. My faith, a bonnie sprauchlin' I had, I tell ye, before I cam' to that o't. The Israelites o' old had a weary tramp o' forty years, and a terrible time o' battles and wars, before they reached the promised land, and, faith, my experience in mony weys was like theirs. Mony a Red Sea I crossed, mony a desert I gaed through, mony a battle I focht, before my Canaan loomed in sicht. But in a' my wilderness traivels and in a' my trials and treebulations I wasna my lane. Ah no; I wasna fechtin' single-haunded. The Israelites, altho' they often didna deserve it, had the Almichty wi' them. Weel, I had, like ither puir mortals, the Almichty wi' me "a very present help in time o' trouble," as the Psalmist says. But I had mair. I had Grizzy wi' me into the bargain. Grizzy, the love o' my youth and the consoler o' my auld age, the only lass I ever met wha's presence and companionship meant a' the world to me, and wha's aid and comfort an~ advice have made me what I am. But I'm rinnin' away wi' mysel'. Ever since I sterted to tell ye a' aboot my early days I have juist, as it were, touched on points here and there, points which I would caa' the steppin'-stanes o' my life. I've tell't ye them a' in their order, but havena taen time to gang into particeelars. I've juist spoken to you in a kind o' general wey, and, if it's a' the same to you, I'll juist continue my story and tell ye o' the steppin'-stanes that led up to the signboard and the bank accoont. I served six years wi' John M'Andra-six lang years in which I learned not only the different departments o' my tred, but much o' this warld's weys and concerns into the bargain. My hame life, frae the time my faither deid, gaed on much as usual. We had mony a sair fecht to keep the wolf frae the door, but we aye managed to pu' through. My mither got a' my wages, and often o' a forenicht, when my wark was dune for the day, I gaed up to the stables and got some odd job to dae, and what I got for that was aye a welcome addition to the general fund. Since my faither's death I somewey had aye the idea that I had drappit, not only in the world's estimation, but in my ain. When my faither was leevin' we had someyin forby in the hoose, a personality heid and shooders abune the lave o' the fouk, and when we lost him, I had the consciousness that the hoose had tint something-its stamp or hallmark, as yin micht say-and was noo like ony ither yin in the village. It's a grand thing to hae something or somebody to live up to. If ye haena, then there's likely to be something or somebody to live doon to. There's no sic a thing as markin' time in this life. If you're no gaun forrit, then you're gaun back, and this is where my point comes in. I felt as if I was livin' doon to something or somebody, whereas formerly I was livin' up to yin o' the very best, ay, the very best character that I ever kenned. I was losin' caste in my ain een, and I kenned o't, but couldna help it. The reasons for this werena faur to seek. For ae thing, the hame atmosphere had changed. Noo that my mither had a free haun', she gethered roon' oor fireside o' a nicht-and in this she was aided and abetted by nm grandmither-a' the clypes and clashes o' the toon-auld wives and young yins, and every yin o' them wi' a weel hung tongue and a story to tell. Between my mither's indifference to me and my grandmither's aversion to me, and the continual presence o' ither women fouk I didna like, hame, for me, sune lost a' its attraction, and I was forced to look ootside for something to divert and fill in my time. I sune got acquaint wi' ither apprentices o' my ain age, and on a simmer nicht, efter I had taen a turn at the stables, I used to tak' a haun' wi' them at the quoits in the Dry Gill green. Or, if the watter and weather were favourable, I wad hae a cast in the Nith, and mony a time I've taen my breakfast oot o' the Doctor's stream or Mattha's Pool. Then on a winter nicht I played draughts or dominoes in tiler Wilson's warkshop. Wattie had aye a nice warm corner for ony twae enthusiasts o' the dambrod that cared to gie him a caa' o' an evenin', and mony, mony a time I hae had a warmin' up at Wattie's stove that was aye denied me at oor ain fireside. My chief companion at this time was anither mason apprentice, yin Davie Gracie. Davie was a graun' whussler through his teeth, and kenned a' the guid mairchin' tunes, and him and me used to walk regularly up ae side o' the street and doon the ither keepin' step to the "Battle o' Stirling Brig" or "The Blue Bonnets are over the Border." I could never cock oot my lips richt or keep them watt eneuch to be a whussler, but Davie was a host in himsel', and a' I contributed to the programme was my company and the richt step. He was a year aulder than me, could smoke a pipe, and wore a dickie at nicht. I had nae dickie, and I couldna smoke then-at least to enjoy it-but I was baith bigger and stronger, and, unlike him, I could gang onywhere in the dark and no' be frichtened. Ye see his mither was a Heelan' woman, frae Argyleshire. She believed in ghaists and fairies and watter kelpies, and death raps and the like, and had brocht up her weans in thae beliefs and to sic an extent that they daurna gang oot to the pump for a drink o' watter efter the darkenin'. This was a great peety, for when, aboot this time, Davie fell in love wi' a nice bit lass wha was in service at the Burn, he was sairly put aboot to get through the dark loanin's and past the Auld Kirkyaird on his wey to see her, withoot feelin' the hair o' his croon risin' fit to lift up his bonnet. I wasna in the least chawed at him haein' a sweethert, for I bothered my heid little aboot lassies, nor had I ony sympathy wi' him in his fears and timourness, for that I coonted unmanly. There was less mairchin' and whusslin', for Davie was itherwise and dootless better engaged, and tho' he, aince or twice hinted to me to walk the length o' Greenheid wi' him, I didna comply. Ae dark Wednesday nicht, hooever, he prayed on me to keep him company to the Burn on the followin' Friday nicht, and to back up and mak' his persuasions a' the mair attractive to me, he told me his sweethert had a neihor-a braw, sonsie lass he said she was, and that I wad hae something better to do than lung aboot and kick my heels till he had a word or twae wi' Marget Dalrymple, for sic was his sweethert's name. Weel, efter a lot o' hickin' and haawin', I consented to gang wi' him, and aboot hauf-past seeven the followin' Friday we set oot frae Thornhill for the Burn. It's queer hoo wee, insignificant things stick to yin's mind and attach themselves to certain circumstances and associations, for, d'ye ken, whenever I think back on that journey I imagine even yet that I hae the smell in my nostrils o' the hair oil that Davie had plaistered a' ower his tozzlie hair. I never could staun' hair oil a' my days, even for Grizzy's sake I wadna use it; so I keepit as faur away frae him as I possibly could. This was nae easy job, hooever, as my livin' presence, as it were, was what Davie was dependin' on, and, as it was pitch dark, a bonnie dookin' and bobbin' we had on the road, for he was as anxious to be near me as I was to be faur away frae him. Mind you, Davie never let on to me that he was feared for the darkness or that thochts o' ghosts put him aboot. Not he. But I kenned fine, and I had made up my mind that it wadna be my blame if the hair o' his held didna staun' strecht, not only gaun by the Auld Kirkyaird, but a the road to the Burn. It was awfu' dark and quate-no' a Tam o' Shanter nicht o' howlin' winds and rattlin' shooers, but yin o' stillness and mirk, which lay on yin's spirit like a pall. It was the kind o' darkness and quateness that yin can feel pressin' yin's croon doon, as it were, and which gies yin the feelin' that something's expected and that ocht micht happen. When we were ootside the toon and away frae a' the licht o' the hooses I took a lang swirlin' cock's tail feather oot o' my pooch and fixed it into a slit at the end o' my walkin' stick, and then I began to talk aboot blind bats and queer creepy fleein' things, and Davie began to "grew." When I had got him fairly worked up into a jumpy state, I quately put my airm roon' behind me and tickled his ear wi' the cock's tail feather. Man, he nearly jamp oot o' his jacket, and he grabbed at my neck. "Oh, gosh, Robbie," said he, "what was that?" "What's wrang wi' ye?" said I, in feigned astonishment. "Oh, I dinna ken," he gasped. "I could see nocht, but something swished at my lug the noo. Mebbe it was yin o' the bats ye were speakin' aboot." "Hoch, ay, it wad juist he that," I said, and tben I remarked on the uncommon darkness and stillness, and assured him I wadna gang by the gate o' Dalgarnock Kirkyaird on sic a nicht for a thoosand pounds. "What puts Dalgarnock Kirkyaird in your heid?" asked Davie. "We're no gaun in that airt." "No," said I, "but there are queer ongauns there the noo, I believe. Have ye no' heard aboot it?" "N-o," said he, and his teeth chattered. "Weel," said I, "Robb Stitt, the young plooman at Kirkland, was gaun ower to Kirkbog the nicht afore last to see a lassie he's efter there, and when he was passin' the yaird gate he saw a sicht which fairly froze the bluid in his veins." Davie took my airm, and I felt his haun' trembhin'. "What did he see?" he asked wi' a tremor in his voice. "Oh," said I, "what's the guid o' tellin' you aboot sic things, for I ken ye dinna believe in them; but, mind you, queer, queer sichts and soon's are seen and heard which canna be accoonted for," and again I drew the cock's tail feather across his off jaw. "R-o-o-b-i-e-oh-Robbie, there it's a-g-a-i-n." "There's what?" "G-o-d only k-e-n-s," and his voice and knees trembled in unison. "Weel, come on and dinna staun' there or we'll no' get to the Burn the nicht. As I was sayin', things happened that yin canna explain or accoont for, and, faith, Robb Stitt saw and heard things-" "Robbie, let us change the subject, man. Where were ye workin' the day?" "I was at Kirkbog, and that's hoo I cam' to get the story aboot the ghosts at-" "Ay, man, and did M'Andra get the Kirkbog job?" he nipped in. "Yes, yes, ye ken that fine. Weel, as I was sayin', Stitt was gaun by the kirkyaird gate-" "It's a wonder he didna tak' a short cut through the fields." "That may be," said I, "but it's nane o' my business that he didna. I've nae doot he's vexed noo that he didna gie the kirkyaird a wide berth, but then ye see the mischief is dune, and Robb's een hae looked on a sicht sic as, wi' God's help, you and me may never see. Fancy nine hurkle-backit skeletons wi' turnip lanterns in their haun's dancin' the 'Reel o' Bogie,' on coffin lids, and to time beat by anither ae-legged skeleton wi' a shin bane on an aul' rusted breist-plate. Isn't it awfu', Davie!" "Oh, Robbie, for God's sake, stop this crack. Man, d'ye ken, I've a graun' knife at hame that I've nae use for, and I'll be very much obleeged if ye'll tak' it in a present frae me. I've aye been gaun to gie ye some wee bit thing and-and- Man, Robbie, what a strong thick airm you've got. I wadna like to get the wecht o' that on my bune lip, I tell ye. And hoo ye walk alang the street-as strecht as a rash, wi' your shooders thrown back and your chest oot. My faither aye declares that ye maun hae come off sodgerin' forebears. It must be-" "Yes, yes," I replied, "but that has nocht to do wi' what we were talkin' aboot. Ye wad hae thocht that the sicht o' that dance was o' itsel' plenty for human een, but there was mair to follow. Rob, mind you, had fa'un to the ground, and he was sae frichtened that he couldna keep his een open, so he lay quate. But by and by he keeked through a hole in his bonnet and there he saw at the gate a lang white figger wi' green flames in the sockets a' its een and jagget rake-like teeth-" "Eh-michty, Robbie!" and again he clutched my airm. "What's that there?" It was sae dark I couldna see his nervous oot-stretched hauri', but juist aboot three yairds in front a' us was a glimmerin' white thing against the hedge, which, strikin' my e'e, as it were, sae suddenly, put Dalgarnock Kirkyaird oot a' my thocht. Dod, I admit I got a glauff, and I felt the roots a' my hair gettin' a wee cauld. Just at that moment an auld ewe frae a turnip field on the ither side hoasted, juist like an auld man wi' broonchitis, and I felt as if I wad drap. Davie was on his knees behin' me wi' his airms roon' my legs, and I think he was sayin' his prayers, but I'm no very sure, as my whole attention was fixed on the queer-lookin' white thing in the hedge. A' at aince it began to move, and it took to itsel' the queerest shapes imaginable. I could see nae signs o' legs, but it had twae een which appeared to me to be red-coloured, and I was conscious forbye o' feelin' a warmish breath comin' frae its nostrils. Frichtened! I should think I was, for my imagination had been runnin' riot within me wi' makin' up the skeleton stories o' Dalgarnock Kirkyaird, and I was wrocht up to sic a pitch that I couldna bring reason or judgment to bear on the strange apparition in the hedge before me. I didna very weel ken what to do. I couldna gang forrit, had I wanted, for Davie's airms held my legs ticht, and I couldna get back, for he was jammin' me frae behind, but a low deep-soundin' "boo," mair like a groan, settled the maitter, and wi' an awfu' pou Davie tumbled me, heid ower heels, ower his kneelin' body. Then the "boo" was repeated, but in a mair natural tone, and Davie and me sat up on the road and watched, withoot further fear or concern, the lang white held o' yin a' M'Michael's kye stretched ower the hedge in quest o' a moothfu' o' roadside grass. Dod, man, that quatened me, I tell ye, and I didna bother Davie wi' ony mair ghost stories. We baith lauded efter it was a' by and said we werena feared, but we talked on cheerier subjects gaun by Morton Auld Kirkyaird, and were weel eneuch pleased when we saw the twinklin' lichts o' the Burn ferm toon in the distance. I dinna ken hoo Davie got word ower to the lassies, but whenever we landed I saw at aince that I was expected. Marget left Dave staunin' at the ootside door and took me richt ben to the kitchen, and there, sittin' on the settle, was the biggest, fattest lass I had ever seen, wi' a face like a full harvest moon and a crap o' hair like the mane o' a chestnut pownie. Man, she was a stoot yin. Her claes seemed to be juist at the burst, and the expectant kind o' wey she was sittin' on the edge o' the settle made her stootness a' the mair pronounced. I couldna help lookin' at her, and stood sayin' nocht, but gey dumbfoondered like. Then I heard the ooter door steek, and when I lookit roon' Marget was off, and I was my leave-a-lane wi' the fat fremit lassie. Efter a wee, when the tickin' o' the clock had got awfu' lood, I remarked that it was a nice nicht for the time o' year, and she said at aince that it was. Mind ye, we had never shaken haun's, or ocht o' that kind, and we micht easily hae dune sae, withoot pittin' oorsel's to muckle trouble, for mine were in my pooch, and hers were lyin' on her lap as if she never intended usin' them again in this warld. You see, I had never been to see the lassies before. I was a novice at the usual formalities, and wasna juist very sure o' what was expected o' me, so I made some ither remark aboot the tattie crap, and sat doon at the ither end o' the settle, and twirled my bonnet roon' my finger. Man, the nearer I was to her, the bigger she was, and the redder her face, and hair, and haun's seemed to be. Dod, my lass, thinks I to mysel', I've seen something like you made in a brickwark. I gied a bit lauch to mysel', as the thocht struck me, and lookit at her oot o' the tail o' my e'e. In a moment she lookit sideweys at me, and lauched, too, and says she, "There ye go noo. Ye've sterted." "Sterted," says I, "what to dae?" "H'm! what to dae-as if ye didna ken. My word, but you toon chiels are great boys," and she gaed a wee bit loll in the settle and giggled and jippled. Dod, thinks I, she's gien me credit for bein' a bit o' a blade, and, to tell ye the truth, I admit it flattered my vanity, so I thocht it juist as weel to act up to the character, as yin micht say. "Ay, you're richt," says I, "Thornhill chiels ken a thing or twae, I tell ye." "Yes," says she, "but if you're a sample o' them, there's ae thing they dinna ken." "What's that?" I asked, raither ta'en aback. "Hoo to sit on a settle beside a lass," said she, and she lookit up to a side o' bacon hingin' on the ceilin' and giggled again. Man, that took the stairch oot o' me, as it were, and I didna very weel ken what to say. I lookd at the lang length o' settle that was between us, and muttered something aboot meetin' her hauf-road. Govanenty! she cam' her hauf glibly, and I sidel'd ower mine, and there we sat cheek-for-jowl; but I keepit my bonnet in my haun'. Man, d'ye ken this, when I was close beside her she seemed sae big, and me sae wee, that I felt like a wee sparra cooryin' aside a corn stook. Just for something to say I asked her where she belanged to and she said, "Crawfordjohn." Then I spiert if she had ever been in Thornhill, and she said, "Yes," that she had gaen through it aince in a cairt. "Where were they cairtin' ye to?" I asked withoot lauchin'. "Oh," says she, "they werena cairtin' me onywhere. I was gaun to Scaurbrig Kirk." "Oh, then," says I, "ye'll be a Cameronian." "Not at all," says she, "I'm a dairywoman." So I let it staun' at that, and put my bonnet doon on the flaer. "That's the thing," says she, and she hotched hersel' up ; "ye're the better o' baith haun's free when ye come to see the lassies." Man, I kenned then that I was in a tichtish place, and I began to wonder hoo in the name o' guiciness I was to get oot o't. I saw at aince that it was policy to keep sweet wi' her, so, to appear mair at hame and taen wi' my quarters, I put my airm on the back o' the settle. Dod, she was quick o' the uptak', for she sune leaned back till her shooder touched my airm, and then she turned her face to mine, and, in the firelicht, man, d'ye ken it was juist like a sunset. Hoo I did curse Davie Gracie, and hoo I wished he wad come in, or that the ceilin' wad fa', or the hoose tak' on fire, or something desperate wad tak' place to save me. Nocht happened tho', and I juist sat quate, but a' the time I felt she was gettin' mair and mair cooriet into me, and my airm, wi' her great wecht on't, was beginnin' to sleep and to feel terribly jaggy weys and prickly. Mair than that, I had the uncomfortable feelin' that she was makin' things gang, what yin micht ca', "swift a wee." At last, efter a lang silence, she spiert at me if I kenned a nice piece o' poetry ca'd "The Pangs o' Love." "No," says I, "I never heard o't, but the fact is love's no muckle in my line." "Moo's that ?" she asked, quite surprised. I didna very weel ken what to say. Then a happy thocht struck me. It cam' like an inspiration-a' in a flash, as it were-and I saw my wey oot o't. Efter hurriedly thinkin' ower maitters, says I, "Weel, I daursay I needna say that love's no' in my line, for it is. Nocht wad gie me greater pleesure than to hae a nice lassie like you for a sweethert, and the prospect before me o' a happy mairrit life, but that can never be," and I pou'd my hair doon aboot my een and shook my heid frae side to side. "Of coorse, you, bein' a stranger in this locality, will no' ken that a' my family's peculiar-not only peculiar but dangerous." "In what wey ?" she asked. "Oh, weel," says I, "when we turn twenty-yin we've a' to be taen to an asylum for a wee-in fact, I doot I'll hae to gang before I'm that age, for I feel terribly queer at times. For instance, the day noo, I've been daein' the daftest things imaginable, and my heid's been bizzin' like a bumbee's bike." She lookit at me for a meenit, but I juist put on a kistin' face and my b'lo' jaw was doon. "It's very hard lines on a young chap like me," I gaed on, "wi' a' the warld before me, but it's in the bluid, and the warst o't is, it's bluid we seek. If it was a hairmless kind o' daftness it wad be naething, but- Weel, isn't it a peety?" She made nae answer, but, mair to hersel' than to me, she says, "I think that fire needs a wee bit coal. I'll juist gang oot and get a bit." For a stoot lass she raise quick, and her step was licht. She gaed oot, but she never cam' back, and I sat at the fire warmin' my taes till Marget and Davie returned. Man, it was a mercifu' deliverance. When we were aince ootside, quat o' the ferm toon and tacklin' the Burn brae, I told Davie a' aboot my ploy, and he lauched a' the road hame. He even kinket when we were passin' the Auld Kirkyaird and forgot a' aboot water kelpies and whitefaced kye. Needless to say, I never gaed that gate again, and I gied Davie to unnerstaun' that the hair o' his heid micht staun' oot like a whalebone besom before he wad get me to gang again wi' him to see the lassies.