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
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."
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
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!"
"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 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
"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.
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."