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Deeside Tales
Chapter XVIII


“Grim reader, have you ever seen a Ghost?” —Byron.

“That the dead are seen no more," said Imlac, “I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and of all nations. There is no people, rude or unlearned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another could not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by some cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongue, confess it with their fears."—Rasselas.

AFTER the death of George Brown, Waiter Stewart, who was a much younger man, sought out other companions, and with them continued to hold argument on all matters in heaven and earth that his wild imagination could conceive of. In the winter fore-nights he wandered about incessantly seeking discussion, and often contrived not a little to while away a dull evening. The writer has been favoured with the following account by a friend, who knew him intimately—

It is not quite easy for me to analyse the feelings which as a boy I entertained towards “Wattie Plants.” I, and the other boys of my age, feared him, but we did not dislike him. Nothing could restrain us from listening to his stories, and yet these stories inspired us only with terror. They had for us a kind of fascination, from which we could not tear ourselves, not unlike, I have often thought, that attributed to the basilisk’s stare on the victim on which he fixes his eye. We could not resist being listeners of his tales, and yet their rehearsal imparted to us but torture and misery.

We had a sort of presentiment when he was to spend an evening in our neighbourhood; and his approach, descried in the distance, was hailed with a kind of morbid anxiety. We never let him out of sight till he entered the house where he intended to pass the fore-night. I have a most distinct recollection of these evenings. Wattie generally planted himself beside the gudeman on one side of the hearth, while we, the boys of two or three neighbouring families, huddled as closely together as possible in the chimney lug on the other, the older members of the household occupying the intervening space.

Wattie was soon in full swing with his ghost and goblin stories. He had a queer way of screwing down his eyebrows, so that we seldom caught a glimpse of his eye, but we watched his weird face with an intense and fixed stare that was never once withdrawn, unless to dart a furtive glance at the doorway to make sure that none of his doolies were stealing in upon us. I can well remember the torture of apprehension I sometimes suffered when compelled to sit with my back to the door while Wattie was relating his interviews with the emissaries of the kingdom of darkness. But this was little in comparison with what I had occasionally to endure when selected to bear him company on his way home.

He was, notwithstanding his familiarity with the denizens of goblindom, not a little alarmed of them, and exceedingly disliked making his way alone in the dark. I suspect, however, he pretended more alarm than he felt, and that his object was to secure a companion on the way, not so much to ward off the ghosts, as to listen to his narratives. Some one, I think Dr. Johnson, has said, “the pink of society is a good listener.” Wattie was quite of this opinion; it mattered little who the listener was, provided he could listen well—a child was as good as a philosopher. Though he relished argumentation, it was only for the sake of excitement Once roused, and in full career of speech, he paid not the smallest attention to what might be said on the other side, and seldom gave his opponent an opportunity of interrupting him.

When the disagreeable duty fell on me of seeing him home, he generally caught hold of my hand at setting out, and seldom relinquished it till he dismissed me on crossing the charmed circle which he had described round his dwelling. To get over the way often took a long while, for he walked slowly and talked incessantly. One of these occasions is still very vividly in my recollection, and will serve as a sample of the others :

Our path lay first through a birch wood, and then under the shadow of a lofty precipice. The first object that attracted his attention was a foraging hare that crossed our path. Wattie instantly stopped, and with a large amount of mystery in his voice and manner, enquired if I had seen anything. It was of no use for me to suggest, which however I did, that it was only a hare.

“A hare!” he contemptuously replied, “it’s no more a hare than I’m a hare. It’s a witch. I wonder now if it’s auld Janet out on her cantrips. Did you notice, laddie, had she a limp? But we’se be up sides wi’ her the nicht at ony rate. Think ye now gin we be past the place where she crossed the roadie?”

“I’m sure we’re that,” said I; “but what about it?” “Eneuch about it,” says he. “I’se let ye see how to manage the like o’ auld Janet when she’s out on the stravaig as she is the nicht”

He then with great deliberation proceeded to trace a cross on the path with the point of his camaig (walking stick). This done, he examined it for an instant or two from various points of view to satisfy himself that is was executed according to rule, and then in his most solemn tone of voice pronounced over it the words, secula seculorum; after which, recovering his usual manner, he added in a taunting strain— “Noo, Janet, my lass, there’s a knot on your tether ye’ll nae lowse this twa days!”

After this, he discoursed of witches and their cantrips, and of the various methods of restraining them, and told me how the monks of the dark ages had discovered this and the other disenchantment. I cannot now recollect particulars, but he had a long account to give of the potentiality of the mystic words, secula seculorum the discovery of which he attributed to a monk of Padua, in Italy.

We had now got to a part of the wood haunted by owls and night-hawks. As these passed over our heads on noiseless wing, or uttered their shrill scream from some neighbouring tree, Wattie every now and again exclaimed, “ There they go, I wonder what that one wants now.” At last, just as we had cleared the wood, the wild pipe of a night-hawk close at hand brought him again to a dead pause, and after maintaining a solemn silence for more than a minute, he asked, in apparent alarm—

"Did you hear that?” and without giving me time to reply, continued, “that’s one o’ the spirits o’ the upper air. They aften wander about at night; but dinna be feert, laddie, they seldom devour ony human bodie. Among themselves they’re very cruel, an’ fecht an’ quarrel extraordinar’; an’ they michtna be that chancey even to a human creatur gin they took an ill-will at him.” This was said for the purpose of quieting my fears, for I believe I was by this time almost trembling in his grasp; but without waiting for the soothing effect of his encouragement, such as it was, he went on—

“I mind, three years ago, ane o’ them, for some misty manners (misdemeanours), was chained to the rock up there for a long time. It would wail awa’ for a while, an’ then scream out wi’ vera pain. It often made me wae to hear the peer thing; for I well kent it was enduran’ its torture. And what think ye were they doan’ to’t ? Mair than a score o’ tormentors were round about it jobban’ ’t wi’ their sharp little knives, an’ it skirlan’ wi’ pain. Then they would let it alane for a wee, an’ it would peuke awa’ like a hairaie greetan.’ Syne they would at it again, an’ it would to the skirlan’ again.

“Weel, ae nicht as I was passan’, just about where we are ae noo, they were by ordnar’ severe on’t; an* thinks I, it’s mair than I am able to thole; I'll interfere on behalf o’ the creatur*. Wi’ that I steps across the heather there, an’ makes a demonstration; but I’ll no try sic a protick again. Down they came upon me wi’ a skailach like wallapyweeks, and gin I hadna taen to my heels, an’ that wi* a’ speed, there’s no sayan’ what they micht hae deen.”

Calculated to fill me with alarm as these tales were, yet such was my confidence in Wattie’s experience and ability to meet whatever danger might arise, that, while in his company, I seldom lost a feeling of security, akin perhaps to what one experiences in a storm at sea, from observing the selfpossession and unconcern of an experienced captain and crew; but I cannot yet think of the homeward journey without a shudder. Every bush was suspected of harbouring some malignant spirit, and every rustle among the branches sent a shock through my nervous system, from the effects of which, in spite of my philosophy, I sometimes feel I have not yet quite recovered. Even now, I cannot pass through a dark wood late at night, without recalling those boyish experiences, and

“Gloweran’ round wi’ anxious care
Lest bogles catch me unaware.”


 


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