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Book of Scottish Story
Black Joe o' the Bow

Part One

In the days no sae very lang syne, when the auld West Bow o` Edinburgh was in the deadthraw o’ its glory, there lived an auld blackymore named Joe Johnson. He was weel kent through a’ the toun for his great ingenuity in makin’ ships an’ automaton figures--something like the "Punch and Judy” o’ present times, but mair exquisitely finished an’—what d’ye ca’ that fine word?—‘artistic’?—that’s it. Aweel, this man, commonly ca’d Black Joe, lived up a lang stair in the Bow, on the richt-hand side gaun doun. He made his livin’ in simmer by the bonnie bits o’ ships he made, displaying them for sale at the front gate o’ Heriot’s Wark, in Lauriston an’ whiles he took a change at the drum an’ pan-pipes, wi’ a wee doggie ca’d Pincher, that stood on its hint-legs when Joe was playin’, wi’ a tin saucer in its mouth to hand the coppers. Sometimes, when Joe was playin’, and naething was comin’ in, the dog wad bite somebody’s leg by mistake to vary the entertainment, to Joe’s unspeakable delight. But this was often followed by somebody roaring oot —"Horselip! Horselip!" an’ then the drumstick flew through the crowd at somebody’s head, an’ Joe was generally marched to the office between twa policemen. But for a’ his fiery temper when roused, he had a kind, canny way wi’ him when civilly treated, an’ wadna hae wranged a livin’ cratur.

When the lang winter nichts set in, Joe had a show at the fit o’ his stair; an’ aften the Bow rang wi his drum an’ pan-pipes, as he stood at the outside o’ the show, wi’ a lichtit paper lantern stuck up in front, whereon was painted a rough sketch o’ Billy Button on the road to Brentford, the Babes in the Wood, Tam o’ Shanter on his mare Meg, pursued by the witches, wi’ Cutty Sark makin’ a catch at Maggie’s tail, or some ither scenic representation. Whiles, when Joe was burstin’ his black face in the middle o’ a time tune, some ragged imp wad roar-----

‘Hey cocky dawdy, hey cocky dow--
Horselip, Horselip’s comin doun the Bow,
Wi' his drum an' his pipe, an’ his pipe, pipe, pipe!’

Doun went the drum, an’ aff ran Joe after the malicious urchin, the doggie first and foremost in the chase. For whether the beast had been trained, or acted through the force o’ instinct, certain it is, that nae sooner was its maister ca’d " Horselip," than aff it sprang, an’ fixed its teeth in the shins o’ the first ane that cam in its way.

There was ae New Year’s nicht that an unco mess took place wi’ Joe’s show. There was a wee funny dancin’ figure o’ a man that the laddies aye ca’d “Tooral” —ane o’ the best figures in the show. This figure was on the stage singin' "Tooraladdy,” an’ he was at the last verse—

‘Tak the pan an' break his head—
Tooraladdy, tooraladdy;
That’s a' as fac’ as death’—

when a wild loon, that had been lookin’ on wi' a greedy e’e an’ a watery mouth at the figures a’ nicht, unable ony langer to resist temptation, made a dart at " Tooral," and vanished wi’ him oot o’ the show. This created an unco commotion, for when the folk begoud to rise up in the gallery—it was a’ gallery a’thegither—as Joe rushed out after the thief, cryin’ "Polish! polish! polish!—catch a thief! catch a thief!” the whole rickety concern cam doun wi’ a great crash. But they didna fa’ far; for it wasna muckle rnair than five or six inches frae the ground a’thegither. But the thief was never gotten that nicht, tho’ it’s a consolation to ken that he was banished shortly afterwards for stealin’ a broon tammy an’ a quarter o’ saut butter frae a puir widdy woman, as she was comin’ out o’ a provision shop in the Canongate.

But joe was thrown into sic a state wi’ rinnin’ through the toun after the thief, that next day he was delirious wi’ a ragin’ fever. My rnither lived but-an’ ben wi’ Joe; an’ it was while gaun in noo an’ then to see how the puir body was doing, that a strange interest in Joe’s history was awakened in her breast. For he had cam oot wi' some very strange expressions when lyin’ in the delirious state. Ance or twice he cried, "Me nebber shoot massa—me nebber shoot massa. Major murder him broder—me see ’im do it. Got pistol yet—me tell truth——me no tell lie ;” an’ sae he wad gang ravin’ on at this gait for hours. When at last the fever had abated, an’ Joe was able to come ben an’ sit doun by my mither’s fireside, she asked him, in her ain canny way, if he wadna like to gang back again to his native country. But the black fell a tremblin’, an’ shook his head, sayin’ " Nebber—nebber—nebber more !" This roused my mither’s curiosity to the highest pitch, for she was convinced noo, mair than ever, that some dark history was locked up in the African’s breast. Ae day, a while after this, ]oe cam ben an’ sat doun by the fireside, as usual; for though the day was scorching hot, being in the heat o’ simmer, the cratur was aye shiverin’ and cowerin’ wi’ the cauld. Takin oot his cutty pipe, as usual, he began to fill’t, sayin—" Missy, me no lib long ; me no strength—me weak as water—me no happy—wish ’im was dead."

"What way that?" asked my mither; "by my faith, ye’ll live mony a lang day yet. Deein’! deil the fear o’ ye !”

But Joe aye shook his head.

"Joe,” says my mither, takin his puir wasted hand in her ain, "there’s something mair than weakness the matter wi’ ye. I ken that, whatever ye may say; and the best thing for ye to do’s to mak a clean breast o’t. Whatever ye may say to me, I promise shall be as secret as the grave. Ye ken me ower weel to doot that."

Joe lookit earnestly in her face, an’ syne at the door. My mither cannily closed the door, an’ sat doun beside him. Then the nigger, cautioning her to mind her promise, telt her a story that sent her to her bed that nicht wi’ a gey quaking heart. But as this story wadna be richtly understood to gie’t in the nigger’s strange broken English, I’ll tell’t in my ain way.

Ten years before Joe cam to Edinburgh, baith him an’ his wife were slaves on Zedekiah Gilroy’s plantation in Jamaica. This Zedekiah Gilroy was the second son o’ Colonel Gilroy, o’ Hawkesneb Hoose. I mind o’ the place mysel’ as weel as if it were yesterday ; for mony a time I’ve passed it on the road to my aunty’s at Cockleburgh. It’s a gude fourteen hours’ journey frae Edinburgh—try’t ony day ye like. Aweel, the eldest son o’ this Colonel Gilroy had gotten a commission in the East India Company, an’ had risen to the rank o’ major in ane o’ the native regiments; but brocht himsel’ into disgrace there by causing the death o’ ane o’ his servants wi’ his merciless cruelty, an’ was obliged to sell oot, an’ come hame in disgrace. He hadna been lang hame, when a letter cam frae his brither, requesting him to come oot an’ look after his estate, for he had been twice attacked by yellow fever, an’ was utterly incompetent to look after’t. His overseers, he said, were drivin’ him oot o’ hoose an’ ha’, an’ a’thing was gaun wrang thegither. His wife had been struck doun by the same fell disease, an’ a lowness o’ spirits had ta’en possession o’ him, that a’ the luxuries o’ high life an’ plenty o’ siller couldna diminish. His only wish was to see his brither oot beside him, an’ tak for a while the oversicht o’ his affairs, till health an’ strength blessed him ance mair. Aweel, under a’ thae circumstances, the auld colonel advised his son to gang oot an’ do his best to help his brither in his sair extremity. Sae the major, wi’ an unco show o’ reluctance, at last consented, an’ aff he gaed to Jamaica, to play the deevil there, as he had done before in the East Indies.

Major Gilroy wasna lang at Jamaica when an unco change for the waur took place. There was naething but orderin’, cursin’, swearin’, an’ lashin’ o’ slaves frae mornin’ till nicht. Joe’s wife was amang the first that succumbed to the murderous whip, an’ Joe himsel’ cam in for mair than his share. Rumours soon began to spread that the maister himsel’ was tyrannised ower by his brither. He was ane o’ the very kindest o’ maisters to his slaves, until his brither cam like a frosty blicht, and filled the whole estate wi’ lamentation. Sae this state o’ things gaed on for nearly six months, when ae day Joe, exasperated at the inhuman treatment he was receivin’ at the major’s instigation, took leg-bail to the sea-shore, an’ hid himsel’ amang the cliffs. There he lurked, day after day, crawlin’ oot at nicht to gather shellfish an’ dulse frae the rocks, an’ castin’ his e’e ower the wide watery waste for the welcome sicht o’ a sail to bear him frae the accursed spot. Mair than ance he had heard the shouts o’ the manhunters on his track, intermingling wi’ the terrible bay o’ the bluidhound. But a’ their vigilance was eluded by the impregnable nature o’ his position, high up amang the rocks.

On the morning o’ the thirteenth day after his escape, he cautiously emerged frae his high den, an` looked around him as usual. The air was intensely hot, an’ dark-red masses o’ cloud were fast drivin’ through a black, lowering sky, the certain presage o’ a fearfu’ storm. The sea lay calm and still, for there wasna a breath o’ wind stirring, an’ flocks o’ sea-birds were filling the sultry air wi’ their harsh, discordant cries. Suddenly a flash o’ forked lichtnin’ illumined the black, murky sky, an’ a loud clap o’ thunder reverberated amang the mountains. Then the lichtnin’ an’ thunder became incessant, the sea lashed itsel’ into foam an’ fury, an’ the rain poured doun in torrents. As the slave surveyed the elements thus ragin’ in a’ their terrific grandeur, the distant sound o’ carriage-wheels caught his ear. Nearer an’ nearer they cam, till he recognised a gig driven by the major comin’ on at a rattlin’ pace. His brither sat beside him, propped up wi’ shawls and cushions, an’ appeared to he at that moment in an attitude o’ earnest entreaty; while every noo and then the faint sound o’ voices in noisy altercation was borne on the gale that noo roared ower land an’ sea, though what they said it was utterly impossible to distinguish.

The slave looked on, first in astonishment, an’ syne in horror; for, instead o’ turnin’ the horse’s head hamewards as the storm cam on, the major persisted in drivin’ richt on through the sands as the spring-tide was fast comin’ in, in spite o’ the agonised entreaties o’ his hrither to turn. At last the gig was stopped, as the horse, plunging and restive, went up to the middle in water. Then a deadly struggle took place that lasted scarcely a minute, when the report o’ a pistol reverberated amid the thunder, an’ the next instant the body o’ the invalid was hurled into the roaring surge. Then, indeed, the horse’s head was turned hameward, an’ aff went the gig in richt earnest, but no before a wild yell o’ execration frae the cliff warned the murderer that the deed had been witnessed by mair than the e’e o’ God abune. Scarcely had the sound o’ the wheels died away, when the slave descended the lofty precipitous rocks wi’ the agility o’ a wild cat, an’ plunged into the sea to save, if it were yet possible, his puir maister. But the dark purple streaks on the surface o’ the water where the deed was accomplished telt, ower fearfully, that the sharks were already thrang at their horrid wark, an’ that a’ hope o’ saving him, if he werena clean deid after the pistol-shot was fired, was for ever gane. Therefore he reluctantly swam back to the shore, wi’ barely enough o' time to save himself.

Before scaling the cliff, he lifted the pistol that the murderer, in the hurry an’ confusion o’ the moment, had left behind him on the beach. This incident filled the slave wi’ fresh alarm, for it was certain the major wad come back for’t before lang. Sae a’ that nicht he wearied sair for the mornin’ to come in. Slowly at last the storm subsided, as the first pale streaks o’ dawn were visible in the horizon; an’ as the daylicht lengthened mair an’ mair, he saw a dark speck floating on the waves, that on a nearer approach proved to be a boat that had burst frae its moorings frae sorne ship in the distant harbour. Fervently thanking God for this providential means o’ deliverance, he descended frae his freindly shelter for the last time, an’ boldly struck out for the boat, which he reached in safety. Seizing the oars, he steered oot to the open sea, wi’ a fervent prayer that the dark drizzly fog that enveloped the ocean wad continue to shield him, for a time, frae his merciless enemy, till some friendly ship wad tak him up. It was high time ; for he hadna gi’en half-a-dozen strokes, when the sound o' angry voices, among which was the major’s, was borne on the breeze, an' again the deep-toned bay o' the bluidhound nerved his arms wi’ a’ the energy o’ desperation.

Farther an’ farther oot he gaed, battling wi’ the heavily swelling rollers that threatened every moment to engulph the boat he steered sae bravely. For mony a lang and weary hour he struggled wi’ the giant waves, enveloped in fog, till the darkness o’ nicht had nearly set in ; an’ he was fast gi’en up a’ hopes o’ succour, when the tout o’ a horn near at hand warned him that a ship was bearing doun upon him. He had barely time to steer oot o’ her way, when he was hailed by the captain, an’ asked where he cam frae. Joe made answer that he was the sole survivor o’ the Nancy, bound for England, that had sprung a leak, an’ foundered in last nicht’s gale. At that moment a terrible wave capsized the boat, and Joe was struggling in the water. But a rope was flung oot to him, an" he speedily drew himsel’ on board. This circumstance o’ the boat’s being swamped was a mercy for Joe; for had the name o’ the ship she belanged to met the captain’s e’e, the lee wad hae been fand oot, an’ it micht hae fared waur wi’ him. But the captain treated Joe wi’ great kindness, and telt him he micht work his passage to Leith, which was the port o’ their destination.


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