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Book of Scottish Story
The Awful Night

By D.M. MOIR (Delta)

“Ha !—’twas but a dream ;
But then so terrible, it shakes my soul !
Cold drops of sweat hang on my trembling flesh ;
My blood grows chilly, and I freeze with horror.”
—Richard the Third.

“The Fire-King one day rather amorous felt ;
He mounted his hot copper filly ;
His breeches and boots were of tin, and the belt
Was made of cast-iron, for fear it should melt
With the heat of the copper colt’s belly.
Oh ! then there was glitter and fire in each eye,
For two living coals were the symbols ;
His geeth were calcined, and his tongue was so dry
It rattled against them as though you should try
To play the piano on thimbles.”
—Rejected Addresses.

In the course of a fortnight from the time I parted with Maister Glen, the Lauder carrier, limping Jamie, brought his callant to our shop door in his hand. He was a tall, slender laddie, some fourteen years old, and sore grown away from his clothes. There was something genty and delicate like about him, having a pale, sharp face, blue eyes, a nose like a hawk’s, and long yellow hair hanging about his haffets, as if barbers were unco scarce cattle among the howes of the Lammermoor hills. Having a general experience of human nature, I saw that I would have something to do towards bringing him into a state of rational civilisation ; but, considering his opportunities, he had been well educated, and I liked his appearance on the whole not that ill.

To divert him a while, as I did not intend yoking him to work the first day, I sent out Benjie with him, after giving him some refreshment of bread and milk, to let him see the town and all the uncos about it. I told Benjie first to take him to the auld kirk, which is a wonderful building, steeple and aisle ; and as for mason work, far before anything to be seen or heard tell of in our day; syne to Lugton brig, which is a grand affair, hanging over the river Esk and the flour-mills like a rainbow ; syne to the Tolbooth, which is a terror to evil-doers, and from which the Lord preserve us all ! syne to the Market, where ye’ll see lamb, beef, mutton, and veal, hanging up on the cleeks, in roasting and boiling pieces—spare-rib, jiggot, shoulder, and heuk-bane, in the great prodigality of abundance ; and syne down to the Duke’s gate, by looking through the bonny white painted iron-staunchels of which ye’1l see the deer running beneath the green trees; and the palace itself, in the inside of which dwells one that needs not be proud to call the king his cousin.

Brawly did I know, that it is a little after a laddie’s being loosed from his mother’s apron-string, and hurried from home, till the mind can make itself up to stay among fremit folk ; or that the attention can be roused to anything said or done, however simple in the uptake. So, after Benjie brought Mungo home again, gey forfaughten and wearied-out like, I bade the wife give him his four-hours, and told him he might go to his bed as soon as he liked, jalousing also, at the same time, that creatures brought up in the country have strange notions about them with respect to supernaturals—such as ghosts, brownies, fairies, and bogles—to say nothing of witches, warlocks, and evil-spirits, I made Benjie take off his clothes and lie down beside him, as I said, to keep him warm; but, in plain matter of fact (between friends), that the callant might sleep sounder, finding himself in a strange bed, and not very sure as to how the house stood as to the matter of a good name.

Knowing by my own common sense, and from long experience of the ways of a wicked world, that there is nothing like industry, I went to Mungo’s bed-side in the morning, and wakened him betimes. Indeed, I’m leein’ there; I need not call it wakening him, for Benjie told me, when he was supping his parritch out of his luggie at breakfast-time, that he never winked an eye all night, and that sometimes he heard him greetin’ to himself in the dark-- such and so powerful is our love of home and the force of natural affection. Howsoever, as I was saying, I took him ben the house with me down to the workshop, where I had begun to cut out a pair of nankeen trowsers for a young lad that was to be married the week after to a servant-maid of Mr Wiggie’s, —a trig quean, that afterwards made him a good wife, and the father of a numerous small family.

Speaking of nankeen, I would advise everyone, as a friend, to buy the Indian, and not the British kind, the expense of outlay being ill hained, even at six-pence a yard—the latter not standing the washing, but making a man’s legs, at a distance, look like a yellow yorline.

It behoved me now as a maister, bent on the improvement of his prentice, to commence learning Mungo some few of the mysteries of our trade; so having showed him the way to crook his hough (example is better than precept, as James Batter observes), I taught him the plan of holding the needle; and having fitted his middle-ringer with a bottomless thimble of our own sort, I set him to sewing the cotton-lining into one leg, knowing that it was a part not very particular, and not very likely to be seen; so that the matter was not great, whether the stitching was exactly regular, or rather in the zigzag line. As is customary with all new beginners, he made a desperate awkward hand at it, and of which I would of course have said nothing, but that he chanced to brog his thumb, and completely soiled the whole piece of work with the stains of blood; which, for one thing, could not wash out without being seen ; and, for another, was an unlucky omen to happen to a marriage garment.

Every man should be on his guard : this was a lesson I learned when I was in the volunteers, at the time Buonaparte was expected to land down at Dunbar. Luckily for me in this case, I had, by some foolish mistake or another, made an allowance of a half yard over and above what I found I could manage to shape on ; so I boldly made up my mind to cut out the piece altogether, it being in the back seam. In that business I trust I showed the art of a good tradesman, having managed to do it so neatly that it could not be noticed without the narrowest inspection ; and, having the advantage of a covering by the coat flaps, had indeed no chance of being so, except on desperately windy days.

In the week succeeding that on which this unlucky mischance happened, an accident almost as bad befell, though not to me, further than that every one is bound by the ten commandments, to say nothing of his own conscience, to take a part in the afflictions that befall their door-neighbours.

When the voice of man was whisht, and all was sunk in the sound sleep of midnight, it chanced that I was busy dreaming that I was sitting, one of the spectators, looking at another play-acting business. Before coming this length, howsoever, I should by right have observed, that ere going to bed I had eaten for my supper part of a black pudding and two sausages, that widow Grassie had sent in a compliment to my wife, being a genteel woman, and mindful of her friends—so that I must have had some sort of nightmare, and not been exactly in my seven senses, else I could not have been even dreaming of siccan a place. Well, as I was saying, in the play-house I thought I was; and all at once I heard Maister Wiggie, like one crying in the wilderness, hallooing with a loud voice through the window, bidding me flee from the snares, traps, and gin-nets of the Evil One, and from the terrors of the wrath to come. I was in a terrible funk; and just as I was trying to rise from the seat, that seemed somehow glued to my body and would not let me, to reach down my hat, which, with its glazed cover, was hanging on a pin to one side, my face all red, and glowing like a fiery furnace, for shame of being a second time caught in deadly sin, I heard the kirk-bell jow-jowing, as if it was the last trump summoning sinners to their long and black account ; and Maister Wiggie thrust in his arm in his desperation, in a whirlwind of passion, claughting hold of my hand like a vice, to drag me out head foremost. Even in my sleep, howsoever, it appears that I like free-will, and ken that there are no slaves in our blessed country; so I tried with all my might to pull against him, and gave his arm such a drive back, that he seemed to bleach over on his side, and raised a hullaballoo of a yell, that not only wakened me, but made me start upright in my bed.

For all the world such a scene! My wife was roaring "Murder, murder !—Mansie Wauch, will ye no wauken? —Murder, murder! ye’ve felled me wi’ your nieve,—ye’ve felled me outright,—I’m gone for evermair,—my hale teeth are doun my throat. Will ye no wauken, Mansie Wauch?—will ye no wauken?
—Murder, murder !—I say murder, murder, murder, murder! ”

"Who’s murdering us?” cried I, throwing my cowl back on the pillow, and rubbing my eyes in the hurry of tremendous fright.— “Wha’s murdering us ?—where’s the robbers?—send for the town officer !”

"O MansieI—O Mansie!” said Nanse, in a kind of greeting tone, "I daursay ye’ve felled me—but no matter, now I’ve gotten ye roused. Do ye no see the hale street in a bleeze of flames? Bad is the best; we maun either be burned to death, or out of house and hall, without a rag to cover our nakedness. Where’s my son ?—where’s my dear bairn, Benjie? "

In a most awful consternation, I jumped at this out to the middle of the floor, hearing the causeway all in an uproar of voices; and seeing the flichtering of the flames glancing on the houses in the opposite side of the street, all the windows of which were filled with the heads of half-naked folks in round-eared mutches or Kilmarnocks, their mouths open, and their eyes staring with fright ; while the sound of the fire-engine, rattling through the streets like thunder, seemed like the dead cart of the plague come to hurry away the corpses of the deceased for interment in the kirkyard.

Never such a spectacle was witnessed in this world of sin and sorrow since the creation of Adam. I pulled up the window and looked out; and, lo and behold! the very next house to our own was all in a lowe from cellar to garret ; the burning joists hissing and cracking like mad; and the very wind blew along as warm as if it had been out of the mouth of a baker’s oven !

It was a most awful spectacle ! more by token to me, who was likely to be intimately concerned with it ; and beating my brow with my clenched nieve like a distracted creature, I saw that the labour of my whole life was likely to go for nought, and me to be a ruined man ; all the earnings of my industry being laid out on my stock-in-trade, and on the plenishing of our bit house. The darkness of the latter days came over my spirit like a vision before the prophet Isaiah ; and I could see nothing in the years to come but beggary and starvation; myself a fallen old man, with an out-at-the-elbows coat, a greasy hat, and a bald pow, hirpling over a staff, requeeshting an awmous ; Nanse a broken-hearted beggar wife, torn down to tatters, and weeping like Rachel when she thought on better days; and poor wee Benjie going from door to door with a meal-pock on his back.

The thought first dung me stupid, and then drove me to desperation ; and not even minding the dear wife of my bosom, that had fainted away as dead as a herring, I pulled on my trowsers like mad, and rushed out into the street, bareheaded and barefoot as the day that Lucky Bringthereout dragged me into the world.

The crowd saw in the twinkling of an eyeball that I was a desperate man, fierce as Sir William Wallace, and not to be withstood by gentle or simple. So most of them made way for me; they that tried to stop me finding it a bad job, being heeled over from right to left, on the broad of their backs, like flounders, without respect of age or person ; some old women that were obstrepulous being gey sore hurt, and one of them has a pain in her hainch even to this day. When I had got almost to the door-cheek of the burning house, I found one grupping me by the back like grim death ; and in looking over my shoulder, who was it but Nanse herself, that, rising up from her faint, had pursued me like a whirlwind. It was a heavy trial, but my duty to myself in the first place, and to my neighbours in the second, roused me up to withstand it; so, making a spend like a greyhound, I left the hindside of my shirt in her grasp, like Joseph’s garment in the nieve of Potiphar’s wife, and up the stairs head-foremost among the flames.

Mercy keep us all I what a sight for mortal man to glower at with his living eyes ! The bells were tolling amid the dark, like a summons from above for the parish of Dalkeith to pack off to another world; the drums were beat-beating as if the French were coming, thousand on thousand, to kill, slay, and devour every maid and mother’s son of us; thefire-engine pump-pump-pumping like daft, showering the water like rainbows, as if the windows of heaven were opened, and the days of old Noah come back again ; and the rabble throwing the good furniture over the windows like onion peelings, where it either felled the folk below, or was dung to a thousand shivers on the causey. I cried to them for the love of goodness to make search in the beds, in case there might be any weans there, human life being still more precious than human means ; but not a living soul was seen but a cat, which, being raised and wild with the din would on no consideration allow itself to be catched. Jacob Dribble found that to his cost; for right or wrong, having a drappie in his head, he swore like a trooper that he would catch her, and carry her down beneath his oxter ; so forward he weired her into a corner, crouching on his hunkers. He had much better have let it alone; for it fuffed over his shoulder like wildfire, and, scarting his back all the way down, jumped like a lamplighter head-foremost through the flames, where, in the raging and roaring of the devouring element, its pitiful cries were soon hushed to silence for ever and ever.

At long and last, a woman’s howl was heard on the street lamenting, like Hagar over young Ishmael in the wilderness of Beersheba, and crying that her old grannie, that was a lameter, and had been bedridden for four years come the Martinmas following, was burning to a cinder in the fore-garret. My heart was like to burst within me when I heard this dismal news, remembering that I myself had once an old mother, that was now in the mools; so I brushed up the stair like a hatter, and burst open the door of the fore-garret—for in the hurry I could not find the sneck, and did not like to stand on ceremony. I could not see my finger before me, and did not know my right hand from the left, for the smoke; but I groped round and round, though the reek mostly cut my breath, and made me cough at no allowance, till at last I catched hold of something cold and clammy, which I gave a pull, not knowing what it was, but found out to be the old wife’s nose. I cried out as loud as I was able for the poor creature to hoist herself up into my arms ; but, receiving no answer, I discovered in a moment that she was suffocated, the foul air having gone down her wrong hause ; and, though I had aye a terror at looking at, far less handling, a dead corpse, there was something brave within me at the moment, my blood being up ; so I caught hold of her by the shoulders, and hurling her with all my might out of her bed, got her lifted on my back heads and thraws in the manner of a boll of meal, and away as fast as my legs could carry me.

There was a providence in this haste; for ere I was half-way down the stair, the floor fell with a thud like thunder ; and such a combustion of soot, stour, and sparks arose, as was never seen or heard tell of in the memory of man since the day that Samson pulled over the pillars in the house of Dagon, and smoored all the mocking Philistines as flat as flounders. For the space of a minute I was as blind as a beetle, and was like to be choked for want of breath; however, as the dust began to clear up, I saw an open window, and hallooed down to the crowd for the sake of mercy to bring a ladder, to save the lives of two perishing fellow-creatures, for now my own was also in imminent jeopardy. They were long of coming, and I did not know what to do ; so thinking that the old wife, as she had not spoken, was maybe dead already, I was once determined just to let her drop down upon the street, but I knew that the so doing would have cracked every bone in her body, and the glory of my bravery would thus have been worse than lost. I persevered, therefore, though I was ready to fall down under the dead weight, she not being able to help herself, and having a deal of beef in her skin for an old woman of eighty ; but I got a lean, by squeezing her a wee between me and the wall.

I thought they would never have come, for my shoeless feet were all bruised and bleeding from the crunched lime and the splinters of broken stones; but, at long and last, a ladder was hoisted up, and having fastened a kinch of ropes beneath her oxters, I let her slide down over the upper step, by way of a pillyshee, having the satisfaction of seeing her safely landed in the arms of seven old wives, that were waiting with a cosey warm blanket below. Having accomplished this grand manoeuvre, wherein I succeeded in saving the precious life of a woman of eighty, that had been four long years bedridden, I tripped down the steps myself like a nine-year-old, and had the pleasure, when the roof fell in, to know that I for one had done my duty; and that, to the best of my knowledge, no living creature, except the poor cat, had perished within the jaws of the devouring element.

But bide a wee; the work was, as yet, only half done. The fire was still roaring and raging, every puff of wind that blew through the black firmament driving the red sparks high into the air, where they died away like the tail of a comet, or the train of a sky-rocket ; the joisting crazing, cracking, and tumbling down; and now and then the bursting cans playing flee in a hundred flinders from the chimney-heads. One would have naturally enough thought that our engine could have drowned out a fire of any kind whatsoever in half a second, scores of folks driving about with pitcherfuls of water, and scaling half of it on one another and the causey in their hurry; but, woe’s me! it did not play puh on the red-het stones that whizzed like iron in a smiddy trough; so, as soon as it was darkness and smoke in one place, it was fire and fury in another.

My anxiety was great. Seeing that I had done my best for my neighbours, it behoved me now, in my turn, to try and see what I could do for myself ; so, notwithstanding the remonstrances of my friend James Batter—whom Nanse, knowing I had bare feet, had sent out to seek me, with a pair of shoon in his hand, and who, in scratching his head, mostly rugged out every hair of his wig with sheer vexation—I ran off and mounted the ladder a second time, and succeeded, after muckle speeling, in getting upon the top of the wall, where, having a bucket slung up to me by means of a rope, I swashed down such showers on the top of the flames, that I soon did more good, in the space of five minutes, than the engine and the ten men, that were all in a broth of perspiration with pumping it, did the whole night over; to say nothing of the multitude of drawers of water, men, wives, and weans, with their cuddies, leglins, pitchers, pails, and water-stoups; having the satisfaction, in a short time, to observe everything getting as black as the crown of my hat, and the gable of my own house becoming as cool as a cucumber.

Being a man of method, and acquainted with business, I could have liked to have given a finishing stitch to my work before descending the ladder ; but, losh me ! sic a whingeing, girning, greeting, and roaring got up all of a sudden, as was never seen or heard of since Bowed Joseph* raised the meal-mob, and burned Johnnie Wilkes in effigy, and, looking down, I saw Benjie, the bairn of my own heart, and the callant Glen, my apprentice on trial, that had both been as sound as tops till this blessed moment, standing in their nightgowns and their little red cowls, rubbing their eyes, cowering with cold and fright, and making an awful uproar, crying on me to come down and not be killed. The voice of Benjie especially pierced through and through my heart, like a two-edged sword, and I could on no manner of account suffer myself to bear it any longer, as I jaloused the bairn would have gone into convulsion fits if I had not heeded him; so, making a sign to them to be quiet, I came my ways down, taking hold of one in ilka hand, which must have been a fatherly sight to the spectators that saw us. After waiting on the crown of the causey for half-an-hour, to make sure that the fire was extinguished, and all tight and right, I saw the crowd scaling, and thought it best to go in too, carrying the two youngsters along with me. When I began to move oft, however, siccan a cheering of the multitude got up as would have deafened a cannon ; and, though I say it myself, who should not say it, they seemed struck with a sore amazement at my heroic behaviour, following me with loud cheers, even to the threshold of my own door.

From this folk should condescend to take a lesson, seeing that, though the world is a bitter bad world, yet that good deeds are not only a reward to themselves, but call forth the applause of Jew and Gentile; for the sweet savour of my conduct, on this memorable night, remained in my nostrils for goodness knows the length of time, many praising my brave humanity in public companies and assemblies of the people, such as strawberry ploys, council meetings, dinner parties, and so forth; and many in private conversation at their own ingle-cheek, by way of two-handed crack; in stage-coach confab, and in causey talk in the forenoon, before going in to take their meridians. Indeed, between friends, the business proved in the upshot of no small advantage to me, bringing to me a sowd of strange faces, by way of customers, both gentle and simple, that I verily believe had not so muckle as ever heard of my name before, and giving me many a coat to cut, and cloth to shape, that, but for my gallant behaviour on the fearsome night aforesaid, would doubtless have been cut, sewed, and shaped by other hands. Indeed, considering the great noise the thing made in the world, it is no wonder that every one was anxious to have a garment of wearing apparel made by the individual same hands that had succeeded, under Providence, in saving the precious life of an old woman of eighty, that had been bedridden, some say, four years come Yule, and others, come Martinmas.

When we got to the ingle-side, and, barring the door, saw that all was safe, it was now three in the morning; so we thought it by much the best way of managing, not to think of sleeping any more, but to be on the look-out—as we aye used to be when walking sentry in the volunteers—in case the flames should, by ony mischancy accident or other, happen to break out again. My wife blamed my hardihood muckle, and the rashness with which I had ventured at once to places where even masons and slaters were afraid to put foot on ; yet I saw, in the interim, that she looked on me with a prouder eye, knowing herself the helpmate of one that had courageously risked his neck, and every bone in his skin, in the cause of humanity. I saw this as plain as a pikestaff, as, with one of her kindest looks, she insisted on my putting on a better happing to screen me from the cold, and on my taking something comfortable inwardly towards the dispelling of bad consequences. So, after half a minute’s stand-out, by way of refusal like, I agreed to a cupful of het-pint, as I thought it would be a thing Mungo Glen might never have had the good fortune to have tasted, and as it might operate by way of a cordial on the gallant Benjie, who kept aye smally and in a dwining way. No sooner said than done, and off Nanse brushed in a couple of hurries to make the het-pint.

After the small beer was put into the pan to boil, we found, to our great mortitication, that there was no eggs in the house, and Benjie was sent out with a candle to the hen-house, to see if any of the hens had laid since gloaming, and fetch what he could get. In the middle of the meantime, I was expatiating to Mungo on what taste it would have, and how he had never seen anything finer than it would be, when in ran Benjie, all out of breath, and his face as pale as a dish-clout.

"What`s the matter, Benjie, what’s the matter? ” said I to him, rising up from my chair in a great hurry of a fright. " Has onybody killed ye? or is the fire broken out again? or has the French landed ? or have ye seen a ghost ? or are "—

"Eh, crifty! ” cried Benjie, coming till his speech, "they’re a’ aff-cock and hens and a’ ; there’s naething left but the rotten nest-egg in the corner ! ”

This was an awful dispensation. In the midst of the desolation of the fire, such is the depravity of human nature, some ne’er-do-weels had taken advantage of my absence to break open the hen-house door; and our whole stock of poultry, the cock along with our seven hens—two of them tappit, and one muffled, were carried away bodily, stoop and roop.

On this subject, howsoever, I shall say no more, but merely observe in conclusion, that, as to our het-pint, we were obliged to make the best of a bad bargain, making up with whisky what it wanted in eggs; though our banquet could not be called altogether a merry one, the joys of our escape from the horrors of the fire being damped, as it were by a wet blanket, on account of the nefarious pillaging of our hen-house.

* A noted Edinburgh character.

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