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Book of Scottish Story
Janet Smith


Old Janet Smith lived in a cottage overshadowed by an ash—tree, and flanked by a hawthorn, called Lasscairn,— so named, in all probability, from a caim of stones, almost in the centre of which this simple habitation was placed, in which, even within the period of my remembrance, three maiden veterans kept "rock and reel, bleezing hearth and reeking lum." They were uniformly mentioned in the neighbourhood as "the lasses o’ Lasscairn,” though their united ages might have amounted to something considerably above three-score thrice told. Janet, however, of whom I am now speaking, had been married in her teens, and her husband having lost his life in a lime-quarry, she had been left with an only child, a daughter, whom, by the help of God’s blessing, and her wee wheel, she had reared and educated as far as the Proofs and Willison’s. This daughter having attained to a suitable age, had been induced one fine summer evening, whilst her mother was engaged in her evening devotion under the shadow of the ash-tree, to take a pleasure walk with Rob Paton, a neighbouring ploughman, but then recently enlisted, and to share his name and his fortunes for twenty-four months to come. At the end of this period, she found her mother nearly in the same position in which she had left her, praying earnestly to her God to protect, direct, and return her "bairn.” There were, however, two bairns for the good old woman to bless, instead of one, and the young Jessie Paton was said to be the very picture of her mother. Be that as it may, old Janet, now a grannie, loved the bairn, forgave the mother, and by the help of an additional wheel, which, in contradistinction to her own, was designated "muckle,” she, and her "broken-hearted, deserted" daughter, contrived for years to earn such a subsistence as their very moderate wants required. At last a severe fever cut off the mother, and left a somewhat sickly child at about nine years of age, under the sole protection of an aged and enfeebled grandmother. It was at this stage of old Janet’s earthly travail that, in the character of a schoolboy, I became acquainted with her and her daughter,—for ever after the mother’s death, the child knew her grandmother by no other name, and under no other relation.

Janet had a particular way—still the practice in Dumfriesshire—of dressing or preparing her meal of potatoes. They were scraped. well-dried, salted, beetled, buttered, milked, and ultimately rumbled into the most beautiful and palatable consistency. In short, they became that first, and—beyond the limits of the south country—least known of all delicacies, "champit potatoes." As I returned often hungry and weary from school, Janet’s pot presented itself to me, hanging in the reek, and at a considerable elevation above the fire, as the most tempting of all objects In fact, janet, knowing that my hour of return from school was full two hours later than hers of repast, took this method of reserving for me a full heaped spoonful of the residue of her and her Jessie’s meal. Never whilst I live, and live by food, shall I forget the exquisite feelings of eager delight with which that single overloaded spoonful of beat or "champit” potatoes was devoured. There are pleasures of sentiment and imagination of which I have occasionally partaken, and others connected with what is called the heart and affections; all these are beautiful and engrossing in their way and in their season, but to a hungry schoolboy, who has devoured his dinner "piece” ere ten o’clock a.m., and is returning to his home at a quarter before five, the presentiment, the sight, and, above all, the taste and reflection connected with the swallowing of a spoonful—and such a spoonful!—of Janet Smith’s potatoes, is, to say nothing flighty or extravagant. not less seasonable than exquisite. As my tongue walked slowly and cautiously round and round the lower and upper boundaries of the delicious load, as if loath rapidly to diminish that bulk, which the craving stomach would have wished to have been increased had it been tenfold, my whole soul was wrapped in Elysium ; it tumbled about, and rioted in an excess of delight—a kind of feather-bed of downy softness. Drinking is good enough in its season, particularly when one is thirsty ; but the pleasures attendant on the satisfying of ‘the appetite’ for me! —this is assuredly the great, the master gratification.

But Janet did not only deal in potatoes; she had likewise a cheese, and, on pressing occasions, a bottle of beer besides. The one stood in a kind of corner press or cupboard, whilst the other occupied a still less dignified position beneath old Janet’s bed. To say the truth of Janet’s cheese, it was not much beholden to the maker. It might have been advantageously cut into bullets or marbles, such was its hardness and solidity; but then, in than days, my teeth were good; and, with a keen stomach and a willing mind, much may be effected even on a "three times skimmed sky-blue!" The beer—for which I have often adventured into the terra incognita already mentioned, even at the price of a prostrate person and a dusty jacket—was excellent, brisk, frothy, and nippy;—my breath still goes when I think of it. And then Janet wore such long strings of tape, blue and red, white and yellow, all striped and variegated like a gardener’s garter! I shall never be such a beau again, as when my stockings on Sabbath were ornamented with a new pair of Janet’s well-known, much-prized, and admired garters.

It was, however, after all, on Sabbath that Janet appeared to move in her native element. It was on Sabbath that her face brightened, and her step became accelerated—that her spectacles were carefully wiped with the corner of a clean neck-napkin, and her Bible was called into early and almost uninterrupted use. It was on Sabbath that her devotions were poured forth—both in a family and private capacity—with an earnestness and a fervency which I have never seen surpassed in manse or mansion, in desk or pulpit. There is, indeed, nothing in nature so beautiful and elevating as sincere and heartfelt, heart-warming devotion. There is a poor, frail creature, verging on threescore and ten years, with an attendant lassie, white-faced, and every way "shilpy" in appearance. Around them are nothing more elevating or exciting than a few old sticks of furniture, sooty rafters, and a smoky atmosphere. Surely imbecility has here clothed herself in the forbidding garb of dependence and squalid poverty! The worm that crawls into light through the dried mole-hill, all powdered over with the dust from which it is escaping, is a fit emblem of such an object and such a condition. But over all this let us pour the warm and glowing radiance of genuine devotion! The roots of that consecrated ash can bear witness to those half-articulated breathings, which connect the weakness of man with the power of God,—the squalidness of poverty with the radiant richness of divine grace. Do those two hearts, which under one covering now breathe forth their evening sacrifice in hope and reliance—do they feel, do they acknowledge any alliance with the world’s opinions, the world’s artificial and cruel distinctions? If there be one object more pleasing to God and to the holy ministers of His will than another, it is this—age uniting with youth, and youth with age, in the giving forth into audible, if not articulate expression, the fulness of the devout heart!

Lord W——, whose splendid residence stands about fifteen miles distant from Lasscairn, happened to be engaged in a hunting expedition in the neighbourhood of this humble and solitary abode, and having separated from his attendants and companions, he bethought himself of resting for a little under a roof, however humble, from which he saw smoke issuing. But when he put his thumb to the latch it would not move; and after an effort or two, he applied first his eye, and lastly his ear, to the keyhole, to ascertain the presence of the inhabitants. The solemn voice of fervent prayer met his ear, uttered by a person evidently not in a kneeling, but in an erect position; he could, in short, distinctly gather the nature and tendency of Janet’s address to her Maker.

She was manifestly engaged in asking a blessing on her daily meal, and was proceeding to enumerate, with the voice of thanksgiving, the many mercies with which, under God’s good providence, she and hers had been visited. After an extensive enumeration, she came at last to speak of that ‘ample provision’ on which she was now imploring a blessing. In this part of her address she dwelt with peculiar cheerfulness, as well as earnestness of tone, on that goodness which had provided so bountifully for her, whilst many better deserving than she were worse circumstanced. The whole tenor of her prayer tended to impress the listener with the belief that Janet’s board, though spread in a humble hut, must be at least amply supplied with the necessaries of life. But what was Lord W——’s surprise, on entrance, to find that a round oaten bannock, toasting before a brick at a peat fire, with a basin of whey, —the gift of a kind neighbour,—composed that ‘ample and bountiful provision’ for which this humble, but contented and pious woman expressed so much gratitude! Lord W—— was struck with the contrast between his own condition and feelings and those of this humble pair; and, in settling upon Janet and her inmate six pounds a-year for life, he enabled her to accommodate herself with a new plaid and black silk hood, in which she appeared, with her granddaughter, every Sabbath, occupying her well-known and acknowledged position on the lowest step of the pulpit stair, and paying the same respect to the minister in passing as if she had been entirely dependent on her own industry and the good will of her neighbours as formerly.


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