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Book of Scottish Story
A Scottish Gentlewoman of the Last Century

By Susan Edmonstone Ferrier

"Though last, not least of nature’s works, I must now introduce you to a friend of mine,” said Mr Douglas, as they bent their steps towards the Castle-hill of Edinburgh. "Mrs Violet Macshake is an aunt of my mother’s, whom you must often have heard of, and the last remaining branch of the noble race of Girnachgowl.”

"I am afraid she is rather a formidable person, then?" said Mary.

Her uncle hesitated.

"No, not formidable,—only rather particular, as all old people are; but she is very good-hearted.”

"I understand; in other words, she is very disagreeable. All ill-tempered people, I observe, have the character of being good-hearted, or else all good-hearted people are ill-tempered—I can’t tell which."

"It is more than reputation with her," said Mr Douglas, somewhat angrily; "for she is, in reality, a very good-hearted woman, as I experienced when a boy at college. Many a crown-piece and half-guinea I used to get from her. Many a scold, to be sure, went along with them; but that, I daresay, I deserved. Besides, she is very rich, and I am her reputed heir; therefore gratitude and self-interest combine to render her extremely amiable in my estimation?

They had now reached the airy dwelling where Mrs Macshake resided, and having rung, the door was at length most deliberately opened by an ancient, sour-visaged, long-waisted female, who ushered them into an apartment, the ‘coup d’oeil’ of which struck a chill to Mary’s heart. It was a good-sized room, with a bare sufficiency of small-legged dining-tables, and lank hair-cloth chairs, ranged in high order round the walls. Although the season was advanced, and the air piercing cold, the grate stood smiling in all the charms of polished steel; and the mistress of the mansion was seated by the side of it in an arm-chair, still in its summer position. She appeared to have no other occupation than what her own meditations afforded; for a single glance sufliced to show that not a vestage of book or work was harboured there. She was a tall, large-boned woman, whom even Time’s iron hand had scarcely bent, as she merely stooped at the shoulders. She had a drooping snuffy nose, a long turned-up chin, small, quick, gray eyes, and her face projected far beyond her figure, with an expression of shrewd, restless curiosity. She wore a mode (not ‘a la-mode’) bonnet, and cardinal of the same; a pair of clogs over her shoes, and black silk mittens on her arms.

As soon as she recognized Mr Douglas, she welcomed him with much cordiality, shook him long and heartily by the hand,—patted him on the back, —looked into his face with much seeming satisfaction; and, in short, gave all the demonstrations of gladness usual with gentlewomen of a certain age. Her pleasure, however, appeared to be rather an ‘impromptu’ than a habitual feeling ; for as the surprise wore off her visage resumed its harsh and sarcastic expression, and she seemed eager to efface any agreeable impression her reception might have excited.

"An’ wha thought o’ seein’ you e’noo? ” said she, in a quick gabbling voice; "what’s brought you to the toun? Are ye come to spend your honest faither’s siller, ere he’s weel cauld in his grave, puir man ? "

Mr Douglas explained, that it was upon account of his niece’s health.

"Health!” repeated she, with a sardonic smile "it wad mak a howlet laugh to hear the wark that’s made about young fowk’s health noo-a-days. I wonder what ye’re a’ made o’,” grasping Mary’s arm in her great bony hand; "a wheen puir feckless windle-straes—ye maun awa to England for yer healths. Set ye up! I wonder what came o’ the lasses i’ my time, that but to hide hame? And whilk o’ ye, I sud like to ken, will e’er live to see ninety-sax, like me?— Health ! he! he!"

"You have not asked after any of your Glenfern friends,” said Mr Douglas, hoping to touch a more sympathetic chord.

"Time eneugh—will ye let me draw my breath, man ?—fowk canna say a’ thing at ance. An’ ye but to hae an English wife, too ? —A Scotch lass wadna ser’ ye. An’ yer wean, I’se warran’, it’s ane o’ the warld’s wonders—it’s been unco lang o’ comin’— he! he!”

"He has begun life under very melancholy auspices, poor fellow ! " said Mr Douglas, in allusion to his father’s death.

"An’ wha’s faut was that ?—I ne’er heard tell the like o’t, to hae the bairn kirsened an’ its grandfather deein’! But fowk are neither born, nor kirsened, nor do they wad or dee as they used to do—a’thing’s changed. ”

"You must indeed have witnessed many changes," observed Mr Douglas, rather at a loss how to utter anything of a conciliatory nature.

"Changes!—weel a wat, I sometimes wonder if it’s the same warld, an' if it’s my ain head that’s upon my shouthers."

"But with these changes you must also have seen many improvements?” said Mary, in a tone of diffidence.

“Improvements!, turning sharply round upon her, " what ken ye about impruvements, bairn? A bonnie impruvement to see tylors and sclaters leevin’ whaur I mind Jukes and Yerls. An’ that great glowerin’ New Town there," pointing out of her windows, " whaur I used to sit and look at bonnie green parks, and see the kye milket, and the bits o’ bairnies rowin’ an’ tumblin’, an’ the lasses trampin" in their tubs;—what see I noo, but stane and lime, and stour and dirt, and idle chiels, and dunket-out madams prancing. —Impruvements, indeed!"

Here a long pinch of snuff caused a pause in the old lady’s harangue; but after having duly wiped her nose with her coloured handkerchief, and shook off all the particles that might be presumed to have lodged upon her cardinal, she resumed :

"An’ nae word o' ony o’ your sisters gaun to get men yet? They tell me they’re but coorse lasses ; an’ wha’ll tak ill-faured, tocherless queans, when there’s walth o’ bonny faces an’ lang purses i’ the market ?— he, he!” Then resuming her scrutiny of Mary,—" An’ I’se warran’ ye’ll be lookin’ for an English sweetheart too; —that’ll be what’s takin’ ye awa to England!”

"On the contrary," said Mr Douglas, seeing Mary was too much frightened to answer for herself—"on the contrary, Mary declares she will never marry any but a true Highlander—one who wears the dirk and plaid, and has the ‘second sight.’ And the nuptials are to be celebrated with all the pomp of feudal times; with bagpipes and bonfires, and gatherings of clans, and roasted sheep, and barrels of whisky, and"—

"Weel a wat an’ she’s i’ the right there, " interrupted Mrs Mackshake, with more complacency than she had yet shown. "They may ca’ them what they like, but there’s nae waddin’s noo. Wha’s the better o’ them but innkeepers and chaise-drivers? I wadna count mysel married i' the hidlin’s way they gang aboot it noo."

Mr Douglas, who was now rather tired of the old 1ady’s reminiscences, availed himself of the opportunity of a fresh pinch to rise and take leave.

"Ou, what’s takin’ ye awa, Archie, in sic a hurry? Sit doon there, ”laying her hand upon his arm, "an’ rest ye, and tak a glass o’ wine; or maybe,” turning to Mary, "ye wad rather hae a drap broth to warm ye. What gars ye look sae blae, my bairn? I’m sure it’s no cauld; but ye’re just like the lave; ye gang a’ skiltin’ about the streets half-naked, an’ then ye maun sit and birsle yersels afore the fire at hame.”

The wine being drunk, and the cookies discussed, Mr Douglas made another attempt to withdraw, but in vain.

"Canna ye sit still a wee, man, an’ let me speir after my auld freens at Glenfern? Hoo’s Grizzy, an’ Jacky, an’ Nicky?—aye working awa at the pills and the drogs ?—he, he! I ne’er swallowed a pill, nor gaed a doit for drogs, a’ my days, an’ see an ony of them’ll run a race wi’ me when they’re naur five score."

Mr Douglas here paid her some compliments upon her appearance, which were pretty well received; and added that he was the bearer of a letter from his aunt Grizzy, which he would send along with a roebuck and a brace of moor game.

"Gin your roebuck’s nae better than your last, atweel it’s no worth the sending,—puir fushionless dirt, no worth the chewing ; weel a wat, I begrudged my teeth on’t. Your muirfowl was no that ill, but they’re no worth the carrying; they’re dang cheap i’ the market e’noo, so it’s nae great compliment. Gin ye had brought me a leg o’ good mutton, or a caller sawmont, there would hae been some sense in’t ; but ye’re ane o’ the fowk that’ll ne’er harry yoursel wi’ your presents; it’s but the pickle poother they cost you, - an’ I’se warrant ye’re thinking mair o’ your ain diversion than o' my stamack when ye’re at the shooting o’ them, puir beasts."

Mr Douglas had borne the various indignities levelled against himself and his family with a philosophy that had no parallel in his life before; but to this attack upon his game he was not proof. His colour rose, his eyes flashed fire, and something resembling an oath burst from his lips, as he strode indignantly towards the door.

His friend, however, was too nimble for him. She stepped before him, and breaking into a discordant laugh, as she patted him on the back,—

"So, I see ye’re just the auld man, Archie, —aye ready to tak the strumps, an ye dinna get a’thing yer ain way. Mony a time I had to fleech ye oot o’ the dorts when ye was a callant. Div ye mind hoo ye was affronted because I set ye doon to a cauld pigeon pie an’ a tanker o’ tippenny, ae night to yer four-hours, afore some leddies? he, he, he! Weel a wat, your wife maun hae her ain adoos to manage ye, for ye’re a cumstarie chield, Archie.”

Mr Douglas still looked as if he was irresolute whether to laugh or be angry.

"Come, come, sit ye doon there till I speak to this bairn," said she, as she pulled Mary into an adjoining bed-chamber, which wore the same aspect of chilly neatness as the one they had quitted. Then pulling a large bunch of keys from her pocket, she opened a drawer, out of which she took a pair of diamond ear-rings.

"Hae, bairn," said she, as she stuffed them into Mary’s hand; "they belanged to your faither’s grandmother. She was a good woman, an’ had four and twenty sons and dochters, an’ I wuss ye nae waur fortin than just to hae as mony. But mind ye,” shaking her bony linger, "they maun a’ be Scots. Gin I thocht ye wad marry ony pock-puddin’, fient hait wad ye gotten frae me. Noo, haud yer tongue, and dinna deave me wi’ thanks,” almost pushing her into the parlour again; “ and sin’ ye’re gaun awa the morn, I’ll see nae mair o’ ye e’noo—so fare ye weel. But, Archie, ye maun come an’ tak your breakfast wi’ me. I hae muckle to say to you;—but ye maunna be sae hard upon my baps as ye used to be,” with a facetious grin to her mollified favourite, as they shook hands and parted.—"Marriage: a Novel"

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