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Wilson's Border Tales
The Deserted Wife


The following tale was communicated to me when in Dumfriesshire, in the year 1827, by an old and respectable lady, who was herself the subject of it. It interested me then, and I shall endeavour to tell it to my readers as she told it to me. But, as she may be still living, I shall change the name, though I then had her permission to publish it, and to use her own words "to write a tale about it if I pleased." I shall, therefore, speak of her as Mrs. Isabella Simpson.

My father, she began, was weel to do in the world. He had a farm that bordered on the Nith, between Dumfries and Sanquhar. The laird and him had been companions frae they were bits o’ laddies, and he had a guid bargain o’t, and made a hantle o’ siller. He was rather a purse-proud man, but a kind faither in the main, for a’ that. My mother was a woman among ten thousand—ye might hae searched ten parishes and not found her equal—my faither allowed that; and he had a right to ken, for she was his wife thirty years. She was the best tempered woman that I’ve ever met wi’ in my born days; and, without having the least particle o’ meanness about her, she was as thrifty as she was good tempered. She had also been a particularly weelfaured woman. An aulder brother and mysel’ were the only bairns that they had living, and we were accordingly a good deal made o’, especially by our mother. It was generally believed that I would bring a fortune to the man that got me; and when I grew up to woman’s estate, there were a number o’ young lads that professed to be very fond o’ me; but, for my part I had no liking for ony o’ them save one, and that was Peter Simpson. He was a blate lad, and I didna ken that he was fond o’ me frae himsel’; but my acquaintances used to jeer me about him, and say, "Isabella, if ye dinna tak pity on puir Peter Simpson, the lad will do some ill to himsel’. He is fairly owre head and ears about ye."

"Hoots!" said I, "nane o’ yer havers—the ne’er fears o’ him. The lad never spoke to me in his life."

And sure enough, as I have tauld ye, he never had. But I used to remark his confusion when he passed me, as he half looked at me, and half turned away his head, and I’m sure I was as confused as he was; and it was a’thegither on account o’ our acquaintances jeering me about him. At the kirk, too, on the Sabbath, I often used to observe his een fixed on me; and when he perceived that I saw him, he would turn away his head, and his cheeks, his very brow, grew as red as the morocco on the back of the laird and his lady’s bibles.

Peter’s faither was a farmer like my own, and we were on an equality in that respect; but he had taken a fancy to be a millwright, and was serving his time for that business in Dumfries. Now, there was one day that I had been in the town, making some bits o’ bargains at the shops, for my mother; but, just as I was completing them, a terrible storm came away; it rained a perfect down pour—such a spate as I never saw. Umbrellas had hardly been seen in the country at that time, and it wasna one in five hundred that had a one. I had no acquaintances in Dumfries, and I was forced to stop in the shop. But I remained from four in the afternoon until seven at night, and it rained as fast as ever—it was never like to fair. It was beginning to set down for dark, I was feared to gang hame at night, by mysel’, and I saw it was o’ no use stopping ony langer—so I left the shop; but, before I had got three yards from the door, who should come bang against me, as he ran wi’ his head down for the

Rain, but Peter Simpson.

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss Isabella," said he, when he saw who I was; and he looked very confused.

"There is nae harm done," said I.

"Ye haena to gang hame in sic a nicht as this?" said he.

"Indeed hae I," said I.

"Then," said he, "if ye’ll just step into the shop there for a minute, I think I ken where I could borrow ye an umbrella."

I thought it was remarkably kind o’ him, and I gad back to the shop again. He hadna been away a handel-awhile when in a very jiffy he came running back wi’ an umbrella in his hand. I went to the door as soon as I saw him, and he lifted up the umbrella owre my head and held out his oxter to me. I canna tell what my feelings were at the moment. I forgot that it was a down-pour o’ rain and every thing else, and I wonder that I didna lose my mother’s bundle frae under my arm. But I took his oxter, and wi’ the umbrella our heads, we gaed linking awa thegither—and, between you and me, I was glad o’ his company for more reasons than one.

I never had ony idea before that umbrellas could be such comfortable things. It made us as pleasant owre our heads as if the sun had been shining on us. Under foot it wasna just so agreeable, for the water was running across the roads in many places just like rivers, and I had either to wade knee-deep or to allow Peter to take me up in his arm and carry me through, which he did; though I was very greatly put about before I could think o’ allowing him to do it.

But I got home, and when we reached the door, Peter was sae backward that he held out his hand to bid me "good-night," without gaun into the house wi’ me.

"Oh," says I, "ye mauna gang away yet—for when my mother hears o’ yer kindness, if she kenned that I had let ye gang back at the door without asking ye in, she would be very angry."

So I got him prevailed upon to gang in wi’ me, and when I tauld my mother how attentive he had been, and how he had borrowed the umbrella and accompanied me a’ the way, she didna ken where to set him. There was naething in the house that she thought owre good for him. She got him to put off his coat, and his shoon and his stockings, and gied him things o’ my brother’s to put on. My faither wasna at hame, I remember—I think he was in about Edinburgh at the time. My mother pressed Peter to stop and take his supper wi’ us; and he did stop, and began to gather more courage, and to get the use o’ his tongue. The supper was laid out, and a hearty meal he made, and glad was I to see him eat sae freely. After supper, my mother brought out the bottle and gied him a dram, and Peter drank baith our very good healths.

Just as he was on his feet to gang away, my mother had to turn her back for a minute, and says he to me, while he keepit turning his hat round about in his hand—"Guid-nicht, Isabella—when may I come back again?"

"Hoots!" said I, without meaning the slightest harm, and not for a moment intending to forbid him to come back. He hung down his head, and with a sort o’ seigh, gaed away without saying ony niair. But nicht after nicht came, an’ week after week, an’ I saw nae mair o’ Peter Simpson; he hadna courage to venture back again, although it was not my intention to discourage him by saying, "Hoots!"

About three months after this my mother was suddenly cut off frae among us and called to her account. I was naturally appointed housekeeper in her place. Now, we had a windmill on the farm, and the mill was out o’ repair, the millwrights were to come frae Dumfries to put it rights, and till their job was finished they were to get their meat in the house. I wished that Peter might be one o’ them, and he was one o’ them. Our acquaintence was renewed. Peter’s shyness gradually wore away, and I dare say that, for a year and a half, for five nights out o’

seven, he came regularly to see me. We were very happy. I liked him, and he liked me. But his father sent him to the south for a year or two, to see some great men they called Mr. Bolton and Mr. Watt, to get a thorough insight into his business before he set him up for himsel’. Hech me! what insight he got about wheels, and mills or machines, I canna tell ye; but he got an unco insight into wickedness.

During his absence, my father had married a second wife, which I considered as very disrespectful to the memory o’ my mother, and I was very ill about it. I was loath to gie up the keys o’ the house to a stranger that wasna meikle aulder than mysel, and to gie up my situation as housekeeper. I didna like to submit to her; but my faitther said that I should submit or leave the house—and what could I do? But I wearied for Peter to come back, and were it for no other reason, just that I might hae a house o’ any ain, where I rnight hae the liberty o’ doing what I liked without being quarrelled.

But Peter did come back, and there was a change upon him indeed, though not for the better. He certainly looked a great deal smarter than when he went away, and I didna ken where he had left his former blateness; but he brought none o’ it back wi’ him. His language was quite Englified; and, among other bad practices which he had acquired, I was baith sorry and disgusted to remark that of profane swearing!—which he actually did as though he werna conscious o’ what he was saying. O sir! I think there is naething that makes a man look mair degraded and contemptible than this most senseless o’ a’ sinfu’ practices. It is lower than even daily drunkenness. I ken naething sae bad. However, I must say for him, there seemed no abatement in his affection for me; and I resolved that, as soon as we were married, I would cure him o’ the bad practices he had acquired.

To my sorrow and surprise, however, ye might as weel hae taken an adder by the beard as spoken to my faither o’ our marriage. He set himself tooth and nail against it.

"Na, na!" said he! "if I were to allow ye to throw yersel’ awa upon the young, graceless birkie, he would squander away the thousand pounds that ye hae for a portion; and break your heart into the bargain within a twalmonth."

It was in vain that I grat before my faither and tried to reason wi’ him. I might as weel hae let my tears fall on a nether millstane wi’ the hope o’ softening it. Peter vowed, however, that he cared not a snap o’ his fingers for neither my faither nor the fortune he had to gie me—that it was me he wanted and me he would hae. The short and the long o’ the story is, that, finding there was nothing to be made o’ my faither and that he wadna come to, Peter got me to consent to elope wi’ him. My conscience tauld me that I was doing a daft-like action, and a thing I wad maybe rue. But Peter, according to an agreement between us, came to my bedroom window, which, after some hesitation, when I saw his frenzy and impatience, I opened, and he threw up to me the queerest sort o ladder I ever saw. It was just bits o’ sma’ rope tied thegither, wi’ twa cleeks at the one end. I had no sooner done wi’ it as he desired me, than up he came, and whispering to me to come out at the window and place my foot on it, I did so, and he taking me under his arm lighted me safe upon the ground in a moment.

One o’ his faither’s servants was standing at a distance holding a horse, ready saddled, to carry two. I gat on to the pad behint Peter, and he galloped away till we came to the side o’ the Solway, and there I found a boat was lying ready to take us across to Workington. Peter took out a license, and that day I became Mrs. Simpson. I heard that when my faither learned in the morning that I had run away, he didna offer to come after me, but he shaked his head and said—"Aweel! ‘they that will to Cupar maun to Cupar!’ ‘ Poor infatuated lassie!—sorrow will bring her to her hunkers, and she will be glad to come back to the house that she has clandestinely left; and come when she like, for her mother’s sake, she shall aye find a hame!"

He said this when his wife was not present. I hae often thought that there is something prophetic in a parent’s words, especially when they speak concerning the consequence o’ disobedience; and in my case I found much o’ what my faither said owre true.

Peter, however, had begun business, and he and I set up house. Trade was very guid in the millwright line at that period, for thrashing machines were just getting into vogue, though ignorant folk raised an unco outcry against them. My husband’s having been wi’ the great men, Mr. Bolton and Mr. Watt, threw a good deal in his way; and, on the second year after he began business, he had fifteen journeymen constantly employed, besides apprentices. Now Peter was very clever, and everybody said that he was turning out a "bright fellow." Four years and better passed owre our heads, and I’m sure there wasna a happier woman than me to be met wi’ round the whole circumference o’ the globe. I had twa bits o’ bairns, a laddie and a lassie, and was likely to hae a third. I had got Peter so broken off the evil practices which he learned in the south, and o’ which I hae spoken, that he never swore except when he was in a passion; and though that was more frequently than I wished—for he was of a fiery temper—yet it never last lang, and he was always sorry for it afterwards. Even my faither heard sae meikle about his behaviour and cleverness, and his affection for me and the bairns, that he called one day at our house, and after making an apology for being angry at our marriage, he actually paid the thousand pounds that were to be my portion, down upon the nail.

Weel, as I have said, this state o’ happiness continued for four years and better; but it didna see the fifth year out. Peter had a job that would tak a twalmonth in completing, some way in the neighbourhood o’ Durham. All our men save a journeyman and an apprentice or two, were there, for the work had to be finished by a certain time, and Peter was there himself also. He was only to be hame about once a month; and for the first eight weeks that he was there, he was very attentive in writing every week, and came thrice across to see me and the bairns. But, on the ninth week we had no letter, on the tenth we had none, and one came on the thirteenth. It was merely three or four lines at most, and instead of beginning it—"My dear Isabella," as all his former letters began (and long letters they were), he merely said "Dear Wife," and informed me that he was weel, that he hoped I would study economy in everything in his absence, and gie his love to the bairns, and that it was impossible for him to say when he would be across to see us again. I was dumbfoundered—I read the letter again and again, and as I read the tears fell down my cheeks. "What," thought I, "can hae possessed Peter!"

It was ten weeks before I again saw his face; and when he did come, he was as dour and as ill-natured as if I had been his enemy instead o’ the wife o’ his bosom, and he hadna even a pleasant look or a pleasant word to gie to the bairns.

"O Peter!" says I, "what’s the matter wi’ ye?—what has happened? Will ye not tell me, yer ain wife, that wishes nae mair than to share wi’ you whether it be joy or sorrow; is the job likely to be a loss to ye—or what?"

"Haud yer tongue, ye silly woman, ye!" said he—"why do ye trouble me wi’ your silly nonsense?"

"O Peter!" says I, "this behaviour o’ yours is distressing me beyont measure. Will ye no tell me what is the cause o’t, or if I can do onything to mak ye happier?"

"Get oot o’ my sicht!" cried he, "I tell ye get oot o’ my sicht!—and if onything will make me happier that will!"

The Deserted Wife

My heart was ready to burst; my poor bosom heaved like a bird’s that has been pursued by a hawk, till it falls upon the ground. I sank down upon the chair, and I was only able to cry to our auldest bairn—"O hinny, bring me a drink o’ water!" And the words were hardly out o’ my lips when I swooned clean away.

I had an infant o’ nine weeks auld at my breast at the time, but Peter showed nae regard for either the bit tender lammie or its mother. He went out o’ the house, driving the doors behint him, and that very night set out for Durham again. I thought the change in his conduct would be my death, and I tried in vain to imagine what could be the reason o’ it. It laid me bedfast for a fortnight, and my poor infant at my bosom began to dwine through the effects o’ my illness.

Ten miserable and anxious weeks passed, and Peter neither came to see nor wrote, nor sent us siller for our support. I was tempted to mention the circumstances to my faither, and to ask his advice; but I thought again that it might be making bad worse, and that it was best for me as a wife and mother to keep my sorrows to mysel’, without making them a world’s talk. So I buried my misery and anxiety in my own heart, and no one knew of it from me, save from the unco change that had been wrought on my appearance. But my heart was for ever sick, and my bit infant, through the effect o’ my misery, died in my arms.

I got word sent to Peter, but he didna come to assist or comfort me in my distress, until within half an hour o’ the time set for lifting the corpse. When I saw him enter the house, I wrung my hands, and cried, "O Peter!" and got up to meet him—to throw my head upon his breast—for I thought it might still find comfort there; but he said coldly—"Compose yourself!" And without even coming forward to meet me or to shake hands wi’ me, he took a chair and sat down. His manner, his cauld words, went like an arrow through my miserable bosom. I wished to be wi’ my dead infant, and I sank back upon a seat and sobbed aloud.

When the funeral was owre, and the folk had left the house, he got up and said—"I haena time to stop. The work must be got forward, and the men can do nothing till I am wi’ them again in the mormng. Therefore I maun bid ye good day."

"O Peter! Peter!" cried I, "will ye leave me in the midst o’ my affliction! What hae I dune, dear, that ye should be sae changed to me? There was a time when ye wadna used me in this way. Only let me ken my fault, and there is naething in this wide world that I winna do to mend it."

"Ye talk as a fool, woman!" said he.

"No, Peter," I answered, "I dinna talk as a fool; but I talk as a heart-broken wife and a mourning mother. Weel do ye ken that I would lay the hair o’ my head beneath your feet to serve ye; and there was a time when ye would hae done as meikle for me. But its no the case wi’ ye now—and O Peter!--what is the reason! What hae I dune to offend ye ?"

"Are ye dementit, Bella, or what is the matter wi’ ye?" said he, crossly. "I tell ye I am bound to get the work forward—it will be at a stand if I stop here. Therefore, I hae nae time to be tormented wi’ your nonsense, and so—good day!"

"Peter!—husband!" I cried, and flung my arms round his neck—"do you mean to kill me outright? Oh! by the love ye once bore me, and by the vows ye made, dinna drive me from your breast as if I were a serpent. I am the mother o’ your bairns, Peter—her that ye used to say was dearer to ye than your own existence--and how can ye treat me sae now?" He kissed my cheek, and for a moment I thought I saw tears in his een. But he shook me by the hand, and saying, "I canna stop," broke away frae me, and left me to my misery.

A thousand hopes and suspicions now began to rise up in my mind and torment me. I was the most unhappy woman under the sun. Yet I couldna bring mysel’ to believe ill o’ Peter. I never saw his face again until the job was finished, and he very seldom wrote, and only sent a pound now and then, for the support of me and the bairns.

When the concern at Durham was finished, he got another in Cheshire, which I heard would be two or three years in completing. The whole o’ baith his men and apprentices were there wi’ him; and in a short time, he dropped sending the bit pound note now and then; and it was wi’ a sair, sair struggle that I could get bread for my bairns, or make a decent appearance; and I thought that I would now be compelled to make known a’ my sorrows to my faither.

But what I had lang dreaded, though I couldna wrang Peter by believing it possible, was revealed to me like a clap o’ thunder. There was a Mrs. Montgomery, who was a very particular aquaintance o’ mine; and, though I had never hinted a word o’ my griefs to her, but tried to look cheerfu’ when the canker worm was eating at my very heart, she saw that I had a secret sorrow in my breast, and that I was pining under neglect. She was in very comfortable circumstances, and she had an only son, and he was an apprentice wi’ Peter, and was working wi’ him in Cheshire. She had invited the twa bairns and me to spend the afternoon wi’ her, and take a dish o’ tea. But, just as the lass had brought in the tray, we heard a heavy foot on the stairs, and in came Mrs. Montgomery’s son, tired-looking, broken-down, and foot-sore.

"Johnny!—my bairn!" said his mother, "what’s brought ye the noo? Ye haena broken your apprenticeship!" The bit callant said he had to run away, wi’ the ill usage o’ his maister and mistress/

"Mistress/laddie!" I gasped—"what—what do ye mean?"

"I mean to say," quoth the laddie, "that he is a bad man, and has another wife besides you, ma’am, and a family too!"

"O Peter!—cruel Peter!" I cried, and I fell down upon the floor as if I were dead.

It was wi’ great difficulty that Mrs. Montgomery could restore me to consciousness, or bring me to onything like composure. But she kindly pressed me if there was ony way in which she could serve me, and I borrowed from her a five pound note, and the next morning, before onybody was astir, I locked up the house, and wi’ one bairnie in my arms, and the other leading in my hand, I took the Carlisle road to the south. Sometimes we got a cast in a carrier’s cart, or went a stage or twa in the coaches that overtook us on the road, but for the most part I walked on foot, carrying my helpless bairns. At length, after a weary journey, we reached Macclesfield, which was the name o’ the town where Peter was; and when I was there, I had great difficulty to learn onything concerning him; but at last I inquired at an ironmonger’s shop, and I was informed there that he lived about a mile and a half down the river—and I think they ca’ed the river the Bodlin. Sae, wi’ my bairnies toddlin’ and tired by my side, for I was sae fatigued that I couldna carry them, I gaed away down by the river to seek for him. My laddie, tired as he was, poor thing, hirpled away about a dozen o’ yards before me, pulling at the gowans and other flowers, and every now and then crying to me—"O mother, here’s a bonny ane!—I’ll gie my faither this!—will it be lang or we see him noo?"

"No, my dear," said I, "it winna be lang noo." And the tears were hailing down my cheeks as I spoke.

But, as I was saying, my bairn was about a dozen o’ yards before me, and he was just turning a sort o’ corner, when he cried out—"Mother! Mother!—here’s my faither coming to meet us!"

My broken heart louped to my mouth. I cried—"O hinny! hinny!—what do you say?" But, as I spoke, I got to the corner, and there, within half a stone throw o’ me, did I see Peter—my husband!—wi’ a lang yellow hizzy, dressed like a queen, linked to his arm, and a servant wench carrying a bairn behint them!

I saw my laddied running wi’ his hands out to meet him, and I heard him crying—"Faither! Faither!—here’s my mother and my sister!"

But my poor dazed head swam round. I could hear, I could see nae mair; and, wi’ a scream o’ misery, I fell senseless on the green grass. As I began to recover, I felt cauld water pouring on my breast and face, and when I opened my een it was Peter that did it. Even then, I could hae forgiven him a’ that was passed, and I tried to rise, and, stretching out my hand to him, said affectionately, but not upbraidingly—"O Peter!"

"Woman!" said he, and he looked fiercely as an angry lion, and his teeth were grating one upon another, "why hae ye come here to torment and persecute me? Go back to your faither’s—go where you like—take your bairns wi’ ye—I will gie you and them a maintenance; but never let me see your face again."

My poor bairns were screaming round about me, they were kissing me and clinging round my neck. The strength and the presence o’ mind wi’ which I was then inspired surprises me to this moment. I rose upon my feet, I looked him brent in the face, and his guiltiness made him hang down his head before me.

"Peter," said I, "if I am not worthy o’ yer heart, I winna accept o’ bread at yer hands. For thir dear bairns that I hae borne, I am ready to beg to the world’s end. I will work for them till the nails fa’ frae my fingers; but I will die, Peter, and they shall perish for want, before they taste a morsel o’ your providing! Fareweel! Cruel, ungratefu’ man!—and may ye never feel the pangs o’ the poor heart that ye hae broken!"

"Villain that I am!" he cried. And striking his clenched hand upon his brow, he left me and my bairns.

Where the hizzy that I saw wi’ him, and her servant and bairn, were a’ the time, I didna see, and I didna inquire. But not to fatigue you, sir, wi’ a lang story—I had husbanded the five pounds that Mrs. Montgomery lent me in such a way that I thought I had enough left to carry me back again to Dumfriesshire. We had reached within a mile o’ Preston, when wha should we meet upon horseback, but my auld faither coming to look after us! Mrs. Montgomery had informed him o’ the whole particulars, and he nae sooner heard o’ them than he set out to see that nae harm was done to his Isabella. The auld grey haired man jumped down frae his horse, and grat upon my neck like a bairn. He sent us by the next coach to Carlisle; and he took me and my bairns hame wi’ him; and there I found that a good mother was my step-mother to me in my distress, and she was mair than a grandmother to my bairns.

When my son was about eighteen, my father died; and besides the portion that I had got after my marriage, he bequeathed to me in his will what had been an independence.

I had heard nothing about my husband for nearly twenty years. I didna ken whether he was dead or living. But my son took a fancy for the sea; and, before he was twenty-one, he was a ship captain in the American trade. His vessel was lying at New York, when there was a middle-aged broken-down man—one that seemed to be ruined both in health and circumstances—came aboard and begged for the sake o’ Heaven that he would gie him a passage to England. My son asked him several questions, and, O sir! Sir!—he discovered that the poor beggar before him was his own faither—his thoughtless faither! He didna chide him, he didna upraid him—for oh, it is a terrible thing for a son to speak like a condemning judge to a faither. I needna tell ye that he brought him hame—that he did everything to restore him to health and happiness—and even brought him as a criminal before me. But I kenned him at the first glance and welcomed him wi’ open arms.

"O Isabella! Isabella!" he cried, and fell at my feet.

"Husband! husband!" said I, helping our son to raise him up, "there is joy owre those that repent. Welcome!—welcome!"

He lived for twelve years after this, and he died a sincere penitent, wi’ his head upon my bosom, and his hand in my hand, imploring a blessing upon me and his bairns.


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