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Good Words 1860
Lady Sommervilles Maidens


(Continued from page 92.)

Though Euphame and Katie bore no bond of sisterhood between them, they were now and then thrown together, and marked out in a species of association. They were of an age, womanly little maidens of thirteen, and they were as well born as any gentlewoman under Lady Somerville's protection. Crichton was a good name in the south of Scotland, and Euphame was able to look across the Borough Moor to the setting sun gleaming in rays of gold on the imposing mass of irregular buildings, crowded with suggestive coats of arms, mottoes, and distiches, whose venerable and grotesque character, charmed and puzzled future generations, which was called the Wrichtishouse, and which might have been founded originally by the carpenters who cut down the waving oaks on the Borough Moor, but which was as much a testimony to the state and influence of this branch of the Napiers, as Merchiston to that greener stem; yet here was poor Euphame educated by charity, and her mother no better than a bedeswoman in the Trinity; and Katie Crichton's brother receiving alms from the shade of George Heriot; and many of the girls and young women had well-to-do connexions and comfortable homes, and had only played upon Lady Somerville's bounty, like the abusers of the purport of Christchurch, with the intention of securing the education, the geography and the dancing, (there was dancing in the douce town, though the magistrates and ministers only permitted it to be taught by licensed professors,) which distinguished it from a dame's school, and which was so rare in Anne's reign that Macaulay is compelled to give over the Englishwomen —the great-grand-daughters of Elizabeth's learned ladies, the grand-daughters and daughters of the Lady Russells and Lady Hutchesons — to their accompt-books and family recipes, after they had spelt out their chapters in their Bibles; and Pope could not be expected to grant more than "Taylor and the Book of Martyrs." But though Mary, princess and queen, of solid parts and reasonable industry, and taught by a bishop, stumbled in her grammar, and fell in her spelling, in Scotland the love of learning survived the dreary dissipation and frivolity of the second Charles's lustre, and the religious troubles excited thought and stimulated genius. Lady Kenmure, to whom Samuel Rutherford addressed his letters, was no illiterate woman; Grizel Baillie sang sweetly on her hill-side perch; and at not a very distant date, Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie, from her castle, with the sound and the sight of Largs awakening old echoes in her imagination, executed such an imitation of the heroic march of a ballad of the sea-border, as might have laid the dark spirit in the burdened breast of a warlike Saul. But these interlopers for the sake of the loaves and the fishes of knowledge in Lady Somerville's Hospital, did not hesitate to shed their wit on more honest recipients of the provost's widow's gift; they scorned the poverty-stricken pensioners; in great inconsistency, they viewed with contempt their debt to other charities; and without any particular acquaintance with the history of the knights of St John, they would dub Euphame Napier and Katie Crichton hospitallers, in contradistinction to themselves, who only wore Lady Somerville's badge, and, so far as food and raiment were concerned, could drop it any day. How often old and young, with no primitive inclination, are forced into communications and combinations for which they can scarcely account, and which they cannot shake off—which come to affect them seriously, perhaps to influence their whole lives; and looking back, and tracing the first almost compulsory beginning of the association, the faithless call it fate, and the faithful providence.

Morning after morning, for half a score of years. Lady Somerville's maidens were aroused in the sunny summer dawn and the bleak winter's darkness by the warning bell; rose from their hard pallets, washed, dressed expeditiously at their tiny looking-glasses, met at the early exercises in the hall, where the sole license of the day was allowed to the chaplain. Mr Durie (something of a fragrant name in old covenanting Edinburgh ears) might hold forth at will—time was not dribbled out, or autocratically allotted to him. The porridge might be scalding, the message-boy tirling at the pin, no quiver of impatience disturbed Mrs Jonet's fixed features and folded hands; no sleepy, hungry girl might yawn at her peril. But Mr Durie was generally merciful as well as earnest; and there was something touching and significant in this loyal homage to spiritual duties and needs, and something fair, with the lofty fairness of Jephthah's daughter among the poet's "fair women," in the intentness and care, whatever might be lacking besides, with which the thoughtful among the maidens set their soft, dimpled faces, and folded their hands like Mrs Jonet, and laboured to feel in a devout frame of mind, to hate the world, to mortify the flesh—advanced and isolated limbs of Christianity, of which they were in danger of framing a distorted body—forgetting to receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child. Afterwards Mr Durie said grace, and returned thanks for the bowls of porridge and porringers of milk; and he also heard the girls read and repeat portions of geography and history, and presided over maps, copies, and slates—subsiding marvellously from a serious, solemn divine into quite a simple, abstracted dominie, upon whom the more waggish of his pupils, and even the grave girls like Euphame, moved by their thirteen or fifteen years, played little tricks and ludicrous manoeuvres, in all affection and respect, when Mrs Jonet's back was turned. A half-cracked little Frenchman came in and instructed them in English 'country-dances and French minuets, when Mrs Jonet was always present, though she looked as if she could have snapped up both violinist and violin. The rest of the day was much given over to the elaborate embroidery, whose sale assisted the funds of the Hospital, and which took the place of the languages, literature, and dash of science of modern polite accomplishments; with lessons in cookery, meals, and airings in the garden, and errands under particular stipulations and restrictions into the town, under the stone crown of St Giles's itself—on to the evening catechism and diet of worship, and the early retirement to rest, and sinking down of profound silence on the old house in Bristo Street, which had once contained its rough-riders and its gay ladies, its pert waiting-women and its boisterous serving-men. Why, they were like nuns these Somerville maidens, say you? Kay, they were free—they were training, wisely or unwisely, for work and warfare and life in the world —not for the prolongation of this overlooked, fenced, and guarded seed-time into a barren harvest.

III.

Now, see the girls at their embroidery frames. The two girls selected for notice, Euphame and Katie, side by side: Katie losing her needle, entangling her silks, yawning, whispering, humming snatches of "Robin's Testament," or "A mousie sat on yon mill pin," or some "Waly, waly, by yon bank," all in the same voice; and Euphame creating her faint roses with real artistic satisfaction—scarcely looking up for an hour—recalling the text of the rose of Sharon, which Mr Durie had quoted when he passed behind the bench—wondering if the balm of Gilead were the same as the balm on their terrace, and whether the cedars of Lebanon were greater than their larch-tree, a shoot, as Lady Somer-ville averred, from one of Queen Mary's larches which she brought over from France in a flower-pot—and descending to a verse of William Dunbar's— "Nor hold nane other flower in sic daintie, As the fresh rose of colour red and white, For if thou dois, hurt is thyne honesty, Considdering that na flower is sae perfyte, Sae full of blisfull angellyke beauty, Imperial truth, honour, and dignity."

Euphame did not possess the key to the old ballads yet, and she was only conscious of a lurking, doubtful kindness for Johnnie Armstrong and the Battle of Harlaw. There Katie begins surreptitiously munching fragments of sweet cake and comfits, with which her mother stuffed her pockets the last time she ran away to the High Street. Euphame glances at her with supreme disdain. Bristo Street is drearily dull to Katie, and the offence is trifling; and yet there is something that excites disgust in the greed with which Katie Crichton expatiates physically on sweetmeats. Just so the Flemish girls mortally offended the wonderful daughter of the Vicar of Haworth. But that was a morbid arid harsh mood; and it will be a grievous pity if upright, intelligent, pure-tasted Euphame Napier becomes keen, irritable, and miserable.

"George Barnwell" was written about this time, and the scene may also remind you of Hogarth's idle and industrious apprentices. Well, well, Euphame could not be the Lord Mayor of London; and the mind may at once be relieved by the assurance that Katie, poor child ! did not live to be hanged.

"Euphame Napier," whispers Katie Crichton, "I saw a puggy in the Bow yesterday. Oh, Euphame, it was so funny, I stood a whole half-hour before one of the forges watching it."

"And Mrs Jonet wanting the lawn!" Euphame reproved her.

"Eh, Euphame, it was funny; you would have laughed as well as I. It had on a red coat, like the volunteers starting for Holland, and it danced a hornpipe. Euphame, would you not have laughed?"

"May be," Euphame granted; "but I would not have waited half-an-hour."

"You dinna ken; you would have forgotten yourself."

"Not if Mrs Jonet had bidden me be quick—the last word."

"You are aye to be in the right, Euphame. Do you never commit wrong at all?" Childish as Katie was in the midst of her precocious womanliness, she could mock at her Mentor.

"Whiles," confessed Euphame, simply and sorrowfully.

"And what do you then, for I never see or hear tell of it?"

"I tell Mrs Jonet, and say I'm sorry, and I try to mind it in my prayers."

Katie was silenced, and stared vaguely at her companion. Then she added briskly, "I think you 're not very humble, Euphame. I think you mean to be a saint."

"And if I do, Katie, is that an ill wish? Are we not all to strive to grow into saints?"

"Not me, Euphame; I think I wadna like it. I think I would prefer to be the same as other folk— neither better nor worse. I think it would be ower hard for me. Oh, I'm tired of this frame! Euphame, Mrs Susannah has promised my mother a silk sacque which she has left off wearing, and my mother is to keep it for me. Mysie and Jean are served already.

Oh, Euphame, Mrs Susannah is the bonniest, brawest lady you ever saw—her een are like diamonds, and her cheek is more damask than your rose; and when she drinks the claret, you see the purple stream blushing down her lily throat to the halse bane. Since her father, Sir Alexander, brought her up from the south, there has been no end of gallants about our house taking a dish of tea with her, and hearkening to her wit—she's fond of her book for as braw as she is— and they're aye carrying her away to the cock-fights, and the races, and the assemblies, and to walk on the hill or at the pier of Leith. There is the Laird of Penicuik, who comes ben and speirs for us, to win our word in his favour, and sings and loups and snaps his fingers to his ain sang, 'Merry may the maid be who marries wi' the miller'—he 's no sma' graith— and, Euphame, I 'm to have her cast sacque with the yellow flowers."

"But you 're not to attend cock-fights, or races, or be courted by the Laird of Penicuik, and you maun wear Lady Somerville's badge—of what use will it be to you?"

"I wonder to hear you ! I never go like this an hour at hame, and I walk out by the Palace Gardens, and in the King's Park, with my sisters, in our trains and negliges and fans, as fine as our betters. We are Crichtons, you maun mind, Euphame, and you 're a Napier yourself; but you are poor-spirited, like Mark, who will wear none but George Heriot's coat on holidays—no, though the Parliament procession were to walk again—and says he does not care what he has upon his back, and is aye flyting on us for silly, vain gipsies. Mark is not guid company, but my mother will have him with us every time he is abroad."

Euphame was pursuing her own line of thought— "What would you do if you chanced to forgather with Lady Somerville, or Mrs Jonet herself, when you were masquerading?"

"It sets you ill to say that, Euphame Napier; we are masquerading here. I would make them a courtesy and pass on; they are not my mistresses on the causeway."

"You would run away, or creep out of sight," contradicted Euphame, with a girl's full, hearty laugh, quickly restrained.

"Well, Euphame, I do not believe I cared so much for grand clothes till I was put in here. Do you mind how I grat the first week?—you were kind to me, though you looked down on me, for you've no feeling, Euphame. But to wear duds like these day after day—ne'er a bonny red roquelay, or a sky-blue snood ribband, or a buckle to put into our shoon, though Mrs Jonet shews the last on her own person —it would drive any poor lass wild for dress."

"Who's clavering here?" cried Mrs Jonet, suddenly appearing in the doorway. "Lasses to be diligent maun hold their tongues. I'll allow no clashing, or gaping and laughing, during work-hours. The best lesson you can learn is discretion and silence. I'll bid Mr Durie discourse upon a modest and sober conversation, after your four-hours. I reck you've need of the exhortation."

"Mrs Jonet," proclaimed a firm, pleasant voice, penitently, "I spoke and I laughed—I beg your pardon."

"You may well do so, Euphame Napier. Since you've owned your fault, you may still wait on your mother at the Trinity; but as you've proved yourself as glaikit as the lave, you maun keep the house till Highland Bawbie's work is through, and she can walk fore and back with you. Better that you abide where you are altogether. Your mother should consider your welfare, lass, and not be for ever seeking a sight of you."

Euphame's calm breast panted, and the carnation on her cheeks became poppy red, and something like a flash escaped from her gray eyes, but she submitted with a struggle to the hardship and the aggravation of the censure.

Fortunately her attention was soon diverted by Katie, who whispered impressively, almost before Mrs Jonet was beyond hearing—

"What made you tell, Euphame? You've lost half your play, and it is your own blame, and she would never have found out who was to bear the wyte." "But I was in the offence, and she might have blamed the innocent; and I 'm not to speak another word after I've begged her pardon."

"I never promised, Euphame. I tell you that you're too strict; you are not the house mistress; how are you to get through the world crying out in this way? Mark would not do this; Mark just goes his gate, and scorns one and all. I would not tell a lee myself; at least, I never telled a lee till I came to be so curbed and questioned here, and I make the littlest that I can find serve my purpose."

"O Katie!" cried Euphame, in horror; "it is the devil makes the difference between big and little lees —the Lord's command is, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness.'"

"I can say the commandments weel enough, Euphame, though I may be beat by 'the reasons annexed' and 'what is forbidden.' But you were not to speak, Euphame Napier, and it is you who have broken your word; now, what do you say to that, lass?"

IV.

Away in old Trinity Hospital, by the beautiful College Church, with its rich English architecture, its slanting roof, and lofty windows, and its angels and tortured monsters alternating on its corbels—where Mary of Gueldres slept, and where, though her benevolence lived on, no priest, in the terms of her testament, after every mass repaired to her tomb, read the "De Profundis," and sprinkled the holy water—poor Mary's anxious provision for the repose of her soul found no respondent now in Protestant Edinburgh, but let us hope that though the ceremonies, which were idle pageants, were laid aside, her great works did follow her. The adjoining collegiate buildings had been presented by Regent Murray to Sir Simon Preston, provost of Edinburgh, and to them had been transferred from their original ruinous domicile the company of bedesmen, (including bedeswomen,) enjoying a safe and easy retreat for the decline of their . days by the charity of the departed queen.

Within those walls, venerable even in Anne's reign, past a hall with noble roof, royal coat of arms, carved reading-desk and heavy oak chairs, to which the eating-room in Bristo Street was a very insignificant apartment; threading labyrinths of priceless oaken balustrades, open galleries, and great wooden presses; by cupboards which contained the most curiously chased antique plate, out of the Castle and the Palace; enriched by many another donation besides the fee of Katharine Norvell, the widow of the great printer Bassendyne,—a stranger, arrived at the ranges of monastic cells, recognises that this hoary old house, and its perfect Gothic furniture and fine relics, like an enchanted pile stranded in a busy, changing town, till the inexorable necessities of the steam age sweep even this single vestige clean away, is entirely dedicated to the shelter and comfort of the old bedesmen in blue gowns, and the bedeswomen in blue coats and kirtles, whose brothers and sisters in the world abroad receive such scanty respect, are generally overlooked and carelessly trodden down.

In one of the tiny cells, like a figure in a niche, or the blandest and most respectable of old women in blue coat and kirtle, replacing the scurvy giantess or white lady of the box of a caravan, sat Mrs Napier spinning. In this convent world—for Mary of Gueldres' institution retained to the last much of the stillness and dimness of the cloister—the widow, who had been the hearty wife of an aristocratically descended, liberal, hospitable Edinburgh merchant, drew out the lapsing thread of her life. She had known her day when she was prosperous, gay, and beloved, and now she was content to be one of the dependent, submissive, buried pensioners of the Trinity, so that her dear Euphame was cared for, and in a way to acquire the means of compassing an honourable and comfortable livelihood, besides being trained in piety and godliness for a world to come. She was content; and what a commentary that was on the woman ! on her frank equanimity, her sweet endurance, her Christian faith and charity! She was neither a wise woman, nor a strong woman. Euphame took a very moderate portion of her qualities from her mother; but she was as loveable as foolish old Lear. As she had not swayed a sceptre, she did not stand out on her dignity, or insist on her hundred knights; but she had the old king's impulsive, unreasonable fits of wrath and indignation, alternating with a lavishly kind and indulgent temper. She had not been a prudent woman in saving her husband's income; she was for ever worsted in her encounters with her worldly neighbours; she was susceptible of lively prejudices and partialities; and was, like many another old lady, comically honest and wicked in her enjoyment of a little gossip and scandal. But ah ! her wickedness went such a little bit, was made up so purely of curiosity and experience, and a spice of conceit in her own penetration and judgment (of which, though she was a quick old lady, she had little or none); she contradicted so earnestly, with such perfect sincerity, and without the least hypocrisy, to-day's cynical views in the benevolence of to-morrow; and in her most satirical and severe moods she would have so pitied her neighbours in any unlooked-for misfortune, and would have served them with such good-will and alacrity, and that with her fatted calf, her very best.

Mrs Napier would have been invaluable in a besieged fort. As long as self-denial and bodily fatigue were the questions, that old woman would have stood in the breach; and if Mrs Napier would have thus pleased, comforted, relieved the world at large, what would she not have done for Euphame? Euphame, who was the very apple of her eye! Euphame, the thought of whom was sufficient to gladden her dullest day; and when she was able to get a good bit of news, or manufacture some little comfort, or procure some little delicacy, and have it put by her, and be all ready for Euphame's next visit, and nothing to do but to look forward to it, and while away the delay by spinning at her little wheel, and being profoundly interested in the affairs of the Trinity Hospital, and the stirring herself up occasionally with a persuasion that she was responsible for her nephew, Adie Napier, one of George Heriot's boys—she was as happy as when she filled the " land" and tenement in the Canongate, not so far below the Wrichtishouse of the Napiers, and stood behind the parapet of her own roof to witness the city shows, and presided at substantial burghers' suppers, graced by a knight or a nobleman on an occasion, and was waited on by her serving-women and her husband's apprentices.

Euphame stands beside her, in the narrow space of her dormitory, the erect, blooming young girl, in her old-fashioned attire, in the childless atmosphere of the Trinity, sacred to age alone; and Mrs Napier quivers, and flushes, and sparkles like a young beauty with joy, and looks Euphame all over, and feels and pats her as if she were blind; and presents her with the warm hose she had just knitted, and the lace neckerchief she has had given her by one of the other old ladies whom she has nursed through her third spring sickness ; and accepts Euphame's flowers—her daffodils and pinks—and points out her last Wednesday's flowers still preserved, but now to be superseded, with great delight; and must hear every particular of the last week, though it be the very same as the one that went before; and tells her own little stories, how the governor was cross to Mr Mair, because he always stayed out beyond his time; how Mrs Guthrie was allowed to keep a cat, because a great rat had gnawed its way in the corner under her bed; and Mrs Christine could not sleep, because she would maintain that the eat might fly through the closed doors into her room, and then see if it would not seek up to her breast, and sit there and suck her sleeping breath away, and Mrs Guthrie would be guilty of her death; and Mrs Christine had told her such a story of Mrs Guthrie's half-sister, who came in her chair sometimes to the hospital—how she had sold her yellow hair to the periwig-makers, to pay the charges of her "whims," and "follies," and "treats," at Mutrie's Hill and Broughton, and persuaded the advocate that it was caught in the flame of a sconce, and scorched at one side, so that she had to clip the other short to make them equal—a racketing, deceitful quean! The advocate supped sorrow with his marrow.

"But I saw the lady a week syne, riding down Bristo Street, with her long curls waving over her jacket," asserts the accurate Euphame.

Mrs Napier fancies that the lady may have adopted one of the periwigs, to whose raw material she has contributed, or that Euphame may have seen her before the deed; and when Euphame is resolute that it is not so, Mrs Napier gets hot, and cries that bairns are always wiser than their elders; and that from the days in which she has seen evil, her eyesight alone may be trusted to detect a giddy pate and a waster. But Euphame has only to say, "Mother, I did not mean to vex you," and the huff is gone, and the old lady is off as cheerily as ever, describing how Adie Napier had smuggled to her his torn holiday suit, and Mark Crichton had carried the parcel, and been in trouble for it. Adie was so vexed because Mark had withheld an explanation, and it was too late for Adie to dissipate the mystery.

"It was wrong in Adie and in Mark Crichton, too," judged Euphame.

"May be, my dear, I might be the furthest wrong of the three. Na, I admit it, Euphame. I 'm weak, I downa be hard to young folk; but you've never tempted me, my daughter."

"You're ower guid to me, mother." Then, after a pause—"Katie Crichton says Mark is not good company at home."

See what inveterate gossips we are, when even Euphame takes her turn at it! But what is gossip? Where does the wholesome check of public opinion end, and the lash of detraction and calumny begin?
"She's bold to say it, Euphame. Adie tells me the lad was reported beyond hours for three successive free nights, because he had to guard these witless lasses, who would be out in their screens to see some crowd, or fire, or fight; and he wared his gift-money that he had gathered to help his 'prentice fee, to save his mother from spending her whole lodgers' rent on the mantuamaker, and the butcher and baker—the heartless woman! I've no patience with that wife, Euphame—to spoil her idle lasses might be forgiven her, but to sorn on her lad! Adie found it out; ne'er a word did he speak of it to Adie; he's a close chield, and a thocht sour, but he's manful."

"He's eydent, mother, but he's harsh, they say. What right has he to be proud and stern, when man and woman, fervent and slothful, are alike sinners?"

"Never specr the right, bairn, but deplore the fact; for poor Mark Crichton's heart will never be lighter than it should be, in these the days of his youth."

"Mother," observed Euphame, escaping to a more satisfactory topic, "in four years, if the Lord spare me, I will be seventeen, and I will be a year and more fit for work—but that is the age fixed for quitting the Hospital. I think Lady Somerville will recommend me to a place; and I will be very steady and save my fee, and it will soon gather, until it be sufficient to take up house with. I can teach bairns as I've been taught; or embroider for the great ladies and the great houses. You will spin when you're inclined—for you will leave this Trinity, mother, and come home to me."

"That I will, my bird; and so blythe as we will bo together! I wish your poor father may be permitted to look down upon us, Euphame," concluded Mrs Napier, wistfully, and afterwards she joked about spinning their plenishing, for her old lily-white sheets and blankets, which she had spun as a bride, were worn and wasted, and lost in the dispersion of their property long ago. Yet all the time the simple old woman knew right well that she would never live to see the end of these four years, and Euphame's term with Lady Somerville. She was conscious of failing strength and sinking powers. She had not been very foreseeing in the course of her life, nevertheless she anticipated its close. "But Euphame will be a stately woman, a braw, bonnie cummer, though I'm not here to see her. I'll maybe be permitted to see her, like her father, far off from the golden heights of heaven, when the Lord will have forgiven me, on account of His dear Son, for being too proud of my lass in the mountain of my sins," added the poor mother, with a little sob, and was cheery and hopeful, and self-forgetful and happy the next moment.

(To be continued.)


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