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Wilson's Border Tales
My Black Coat


Or,

The Breaking of the Bride's China.

Gentle reader, the simple circumstances I am about to relate to you, hang upon what is termed—a bad omen. There are few amongst the uneducated who have not a degree of faith in omens; and even amongst the better educated and well informed, there are many who, while they profess to disbelieve them, and, indeed, do disbelieve them, yet feel them in their hours of solitude. I have known individuals who, in the hour of danger, would have braved the cannon’s mouth, or defied death to his teeth, who, nevertheless, would have buried their head in the bedclothes at the howling of a dog at midnight, or spent a sleepless night from hearing the tick, tick, of the spider, or the untiring song of the kitchen-fire musician—the jolly little cricket. The age of omens, however, is drawing to a close; for Truth in its progress is trampling delusion of every kind under its feet; yet, after all, though a belief in omens is a superstition, it is one that carries with it a portion of the poetry of our nature. But to proceed with our story.

Several years ago, I was on my way from B— to Edinburgh; and being as familiar with every cottage, tree, shrub, and whin-bush on the Dunbar and Lauder roads, as with the face of an acquaintance, I made choice of the less frequented path by Longformacus. I always took a secret pleasure in contemplating the dreariness of wild spreading desolation; and, next to looking on the sea when its waves dance to the music of a hurricane, I loved to gaze upon the heath-covered wilderness, where the blue horizon only girded its purple bosom. It was no season to look upon the heath in the beauty of barrenness, yet I purposely diverged from the main road. About an hour, therefore, after I had descended from the region of the Lammermoors, and entered the Lothians, I became sensible I was pursuing a path which was not forwarding my footsteps to Edinburgh. It was December; the sun had just gone down; I was not very partial to travelling in darkness, neither did I wish to trust to chance for finding a comfortable resting place for the night. Perceiving a farm steading and water mill about a quarter of a mile from the road, I resolved to turn towards them and make inquiry respecting the right path, or at least, to request to be directed to the nearest inn.

The "town," as the three or four houses and mill were called, was all bustle and confusion. The female inhabitants were cleaning and scouring, and running to and fro. I quickly learned that all this note of preparation arose from the "maister" being to be married within three days. Seeing me a stranger, he came from his house towards me. He was a tall, stout, good-looking, jolly-faced farmer and miller. His manner of accosting me partook more of kindliness than civility; and his inquiries went not free from the familiar, prying curiosity which prevails in every corner of our island, and, I must say, in the north in particular.

"Where do you come fra, na—if it be a fair question?" inquired he.

"From B—," was the brief and merely civil reply.

"An’ hae ye come frae there the day?" he continued.

"Yes," was the answer.

"Ay, man, an’ ye come frae B—, do ye?" added he, "then, nae doot, ye’ll ken a person they ca’ Mr—?"

"Did he come originally from Dunse?" returned I, mentioning also the occupation of the person referred to.

"The very same," rejoined the miller; "are ye acquainted wi’ him, Sir?"

"I ought to be," replied I; "the person you speak of is merely my father."

"Your faither!" exclaimed he, opening his mouth, and eyes to their full width, and standing for a moment the picture of surprise—"Gude gracious! ye dinna say sae!—is he really your faither? Losh, man, do ye no ken, then, that I’m your cousin! Ye’ve heard o’ your cousin, Willie Stewart?"

"Fifty times," replied I.

"Weel, I’m the vera man," said he—"Gie’s your hand; for ‘odsake man, I’m as glad as glad can be. This is real extraordinar. I’ve often heard o’ you—it will be you that writes the buiks—faith ye’ll be able to mak’ something o’ this. But come awa’ into the house—ye dinna stir a mile far’er for a week, at ony rate."

So saying, and still grasping my hand, he led me to the farm-house. On crossing the threshold— "Here, lassie," he cried, in a voice that made roof and rafters ring, "bring ben the speerits, and get on the kettle—here’s a cousin that I ne’er saw in my life afore."

A few minutes served mutually to confirm and explain our newly discovered relationship.

"Man," said he, as we were filling a second glass, "ye’ve just come in the very nick o’ time; an’ I’ll tell you how. Ye see I am gaun to be married the day after the morn; an’ no haein’ a friend o’ ony kin-kind in this quarter, I had to ask an acquaintance to be the best man. Now, this was vexin’ me mair than ye can think, particularly, ye see, because the sweetheart has aye been hinting to me that it wadna be lucky for me no to hae a bluid relation for a best man. For that matter, indeed, luck here, luck there, I no care the toss up o’ ha’penny about omens mysel’; but now that ye’ve fortunately come, I’m a great deal easier, an’ it will be ae craik out o’ the way, for it will please her; an’ ye may guess, between you an’ me, that she’s worth the pleasin’, or I wadna had her; so I’ll just step ower an’ tell the ither lad that I hae a cousin come to be my best man, an’ he’ll think naething o’t."

On the morning of the third day, the bride and her friends arrived. She was the only child of a Lammermoor farmer, and was, in truth, a real mountain flower—a heath blossom; for the rude health that laughed upon her cheeks approached nearer the hue of the heather-bell, than the rose and vermillion of which poets speak. She was comely withal, possessing an appearance of considerable strength, and was rather above the middle size—in short, she was the very belle ideal of a miller’s wife!

But to go on. Twelve couple accompanied the happy miller and his bride to the manse, independent of the married, middle-aged, and grey-haired visitors, who followed behind and by our side. We were thus proceeding onward to the house of the minister, whose blessing was to make a couple happy, and the arm of the blooming bride was through mine, when I heard a voice, or rather let me say a sound, like the croak of a raven, exclaim—

"Mercy on us! saw ye e’er the like o’ that!—the best man, I’ll declare, has a black coat on!"

"An’ that’s no lucky!" replied another.

"Lucky!" responded the raven voice—"just perfectly awfu’! I wadna it had happened at the weddin’ o’ a bairn o’ mine for the king’s dominions."

I observed the bride steal a glance at my shoulder; I felt, or thought I felt, as if she shrunk from my arm; and when I spoke to her her speech faltered. I found that my cousin, in avoiding one omen, had stumbled upon another, in my black coat. I was wroth with the rural prophetess, and turned round to behold her. Her little gray eyes, twinkling through spectacles, were wink, winking upon my ill-fated coat. She was a crooked (forgive me for saying ugly), little, old woman; she was "bearded like a pard," and walked with a crooked stick mounted with silver. (On the very SPOT [The last person burned for witchcraft in Scotland was at Spot – the scene of our present story.] where she then was,, the last witch in Scotland was burned.) I turned from the grinning sibyl with disgust.

On the previous day, and during part of the night, the rain had fallen heavily, and the Broxburn was swollen to the magnitude of a little river. The manse lay on the opposite side of the burn, which was generally crossed by the aid of stepping-stones; but on the day in question the tops of the stones were barely visible. On crossing the burn, the foot of the bride slipped, and the bridegroom, in his eagerness to assist her, slipped also—knee-deep in the water.

The raven voice was again heard—it was another omen.

The kitchen was the only room in the manse large enough to contain the spectators assembled to witness the ceremony, which passed over smoothly enough, save that, when the clergyman was about to join the hands of the parties, I drew off the glove of the bride a second or two before the bridesmaid performed a similar operation on the hand of the bridegroom. I heard the whisper of the crooked old woman, and saw that the eyes of the other women were upon me. I felt that I had committed another omen, and almost resolved to renounce wearing "blacks" for the future. The ceremony, however, was concluded; we returned from the manse, and everything was forgotten save mirth and music till the hour arrived for tea.

The bride’s mother had boasted of her "daughter’s double set o’ real china" during the afternoon; and the female part of the company evidently felt anxious to examine the costly crockery. A young woman was entering with a tray and the tea equipage—another, similarly laden, followed behind her. The "sneck" of the door caught the handle of the tray, and down went china, waiting-maid, and all! The fall startled her companion—their feet became entangled—both embraced the floor, and the china from both trays lay scattered around them in a thousand shapes and sizes! This was an omen with a vengeance! I could not avoid stealing a look at the sleeve of my black coat. The bearded old woman seemed inspired. She declared the luck of the house was broken! Of the double set of real china not a cup was left—not an odd saucer. The bridegroom bore the misfortune as a man; and, gently drawing the head of his young partner towards him, said,

"Never mind them, hinny—let them gang—we’ll get mair."

The bride, poor thing, shed a tear; but the miller threw his arm round her neck, stole a kiss, and she blushed and smiled.

It was evident, however, that every one of the company regarded this as a real omen. The mill-loft was prepared for the joyous dance; but scarce had the fantastic toes (some of them were not light ones) begun to move through the many rounds, when the loft-floor broke down beneath the bounding feet of the happy-hearted miller; for unfortunately, he considered not that his goodly body was heavier than his spirits. It was omen upon omen—the work of breaking HAD begun—the "luck" of the young couple was departed.

Three days after the wedding, one of the miller’s carts was got in readiness to carry home the bride’s mother. On crossing the unlucky burn, to which we have already alluded, the horse stumbled, fell, and broke its knee, and had to be taken back, and another put in its place.

"Mair breakings!" exclaimed the now almost heaft-broken old women. "Oh, dear sake,! how will a’ this end for my puir bairn!"

I remained with my new-found relatives about a week and while there, the miller sent his boy for payment of an account of thirty pounds, he having to make up money to pay a corn-factor at the Haddington market on the following day. In the evening the boy returned.

"Weel, callant," inquired the miller, "hae ye gotten the siller?"

"No," replied the youth.

"Mercy me!" exclaimed my cousin, hastily, "hae ye no gotten the siller? Wha did ye see, or what did they say?"

"I saw the wife," returned the boy; "an’ she said—‘Siller! laddie, what’s brought you here for siller—I dare say your maister’s daft! Do you no ken we’re broken! I’m sure a’body kens that we broke yesterday!’"

"The mischief break them!" exclaimed the miller, rising and walking hurriedly across the room— "this is breaking in earnest."

I may not here particularize the breakings that followed. One misfortune succeeded another, till the miller broke also. All that he had was put under the hammer, and he wandered forth with his young wife a broken man.

Some years afterwards, I met with him in a different part of the country. He had the management of extensive flour mills. He was again doing well, and had money in his master’s hands. At last there seemed to be an end of the breakmgs. We were sitting together when a third person entered, with a rueful countenance.

"Willie," said he, with the tone of a speaking sepulchre, "hae ye heard the news?"

"What news now?" inquired the miller seriously.

"The maister’s broken!" rejoined the other.

"An’ my fifty pounds?" responded my cousin, in a voice of horror.

"Are broken wi’ him," returned the stranger. "Oh, gude gracious!" cried the young wife, wringing her hands, "I’m sure I wish I were out o’ this world —will ever thir breakngs be done!—what tempted my mother to buy mee the cheena?"

"Or me to wear a black coat at your wedding," thought I.

A few weeks afterwards a letter arrived, announcing that death had suddenly broken the thread of life, of her aged mother, and her mother requested them to come and take charge of the farm which was now theirs. They went. The old man had made money upon the hills. They got the better of the broken china and of my black coat. Fortune broke in upon them. My cousin declared that omens were nonsense, and his wife added that she "really thought here was naething in them. But it was lang an’ mony a day," she added, "or I could get your black coat and my mother’s cheena out o’ my mind."

They began to prosper, and they prosper still.


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