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Book of Scottish Story
Perling Joan

Our Laird was a very young man when his father died, and he gaed awa to France, and Italy, and Flanders, and Germany, immediately, and we saw naething o’ him for three years; and my brother, John Baird, went wi’ him as his own body-servant. When that time was gane by, our Johnny cam hame and tauld us that Sir Claud wad be here the next day, an’ that he was bringing hame a foreign lady wi’ him — but they were not married. This news was a sair heart, as ye may suppose, to a’ that were about the house; and we were just glad that the auld lady was dead and buried, not to hear of sic doings.

But what could we do? To be sure, the rooms were a’ put in order, and the best chamber in the hale house was got ready for Sir Claud and her. John tauld me, when we were alane together that night, that I wad be surprised wi’ her beauty when she came. 'But I never could have believed, till I saw her, that she was sae very young — such a mere bairn, I may say; I’m sure she was not more than fifteen. Such a dancing, gleesome bit bird of a lassie was never seen; and ane could not but pity her mair than blame her for what she had done, she was sae visibly in the daftness and light-headedness of youth. Oh, how she sang, and played, and galloped about on the wildest horses in the stable, as fearlessly as if she had been a man! The house was full of fun and glee; and Sir Claud and she were both so young and so comely, that it was enough to break ane’s very heart to behold their thoughtlessness. She was aye sitting on his knee, wi’ her arm about his neck; and for weeks and months this love and merriment lasted. The poor body had no airs wi’ her; she was just as humble in her speech to the like of us, as if she had been a cottar’s lassie. I believe there was not one of us that could help liking her, for a’ her faults. She was a glaiket creature ; but gentle and tender-hearted as a perfect lamb, and sae bonny! I never sat eyes upon her match. She had never any colour but black for her gown, and it was commonly satin, and aye made in the same fashion; and a’ the perling about her bosom, and a great gowden chain stuck full of precious rubies and diamonds. She never put powder on her head neither; oh proud, proud was she of her hair ! I’ve often known her comb and comb at it for an hour on end; and when it was out of the buckle, the bonny black curls fell as low as her knee. You never saw such a head of hair since ye were born. She was the daughter of a rich auld Jew in Flanders, and ran awa frae the house wi’ Sir Claud, ae night when there was a great feast gaun on,—the Passover supper, as John thought,—and out she came by the back door to Sir Claud, dressed for supper wi’ a’ her braws.

Weel, this lasted for the maist feck of a year; and Perling Joan (for that was what the servants used to ca' her, frae the laces about her bosom), Mrs Joan lay in and had a lassie.

Sir Claud’s auld uncle, the colonel, was come hame from America about this time, and he wrote for the laird to gang in to Edinburgh to see him, and he behoved to do this; and away he went ere the bairn was mair than fortnight auld, leavin the lady wi’ us.

I was the maist experienced body about the house, and it was me that got chief charge of being with her in her recovery. The poor young thing was quite changed now. Often and often did she greet herself blind, lamenting to me about Sir Claud’s no marrying her; for she said she did not take muckle thought about thae things afore; but that now she had a bairn to Sir Claud, and she could not bear to look the wee thing in the face and think a’ body would ca’ it a bastard. And then she said she was come of as decent folk as any lady in Scotland, and moaned and sobbit about her auld father and her sisters.

But the colonel, ye see, had gotten Sir Claud into the town; and we soon began to hear reports that the colonel had been terribly angry about Perling Joan, and threatened Sir Claud to leave every penny he had past him, if he did not put Joan away, and marry a lady like himself. And what wi’ fleeching, and what wi’ flyting, sae it was that Sir Claud went away to the north wi' the colonel, and the marriage between him and lady Juliana was agreed upon, and everything settled.

Everybody about the house had heard mair or less about a’ this, or ever a word of it came her length. But at last, Sir Claud himself writes a long letter, telling her what a’ was to be; and offering to gie her a heap o’ siller, and send our John ower the sea wi’ her, to see her safe back to her friends—her and her baby, if she liked best to take it with her; but if not, the colonel was to take the bairn hame, and bring her up a lady, away from the house here, not to breed any dispeace.

This was what our Johnny said was to be proposed; for as to the letter itself, I saw her get it, and she read it twice ower, and flung it into the fire before my face. She read it, whatever it was, with a wonderful composure; but the moment after it was in the fire she gaed clean aff into a fit, and she was out of one and into anither for maist part of the forenoon. Oh, what a sight she was! It would have melted the heart of stone to see her.

The first thing that brought her to herself was the sight of her bairn. I brought it, and laid it on her knee, thinking it would do her good it she could give it a suck; and the poor trembling thing did as I bade her ; and the moment the bairn’s mouth was at the breast, she turned as calm as the baby itsel—the tears rapping ower her cheeks, to be sure, but not one word more. I never heard her either greet or sob again a' that day.

I put her and the bairn to bed that night—-but nae combing and curling o’ the bonnie black hair did I see then. However, she seemed very calm and composed, and I left them, and gaed to my ain bed, which was in a little room within hers.

Next morning, the bed was found cauld and empty, and the front door of the house standing wide open. We dragged the waters, and sent man and horse every gate, but ne’er a trace of her could we ever light on, till a letter came twa or three weeks after, addressed to me, frae hersel. It was just a line or twa, to say that she was well, and thanking me, poor thing, for having been attentive about her in her down-lying. It was dated frae London. And she charged me to say nothing to anybody of having received it. But this was what I could not do; for everybody had set it down for a certain thing, that the poor lassie had made away baith wi' herself and the bairn.

I dinna weel ken whether it was owing to this or not, but Sir Claud’s marriage was put aff for twa or three years, and he never cam near us a’ that while. At length word came that the wedding was to be put over directly; and painters, and upholsterers, and I know not what all, came and turned the hale house upside down, to prepare for my lady’s hame-coming. The only room that they never meddled wi’ was that that had been Mrs Joan’s : and no doubt they had been ordered what to do.

Weel, the day came, and a braw sunny spring day it was, that Sir Claud and the bride were to come hame to the Mains. The grass was a’ new mawn about the policy, and the walks sweepit, and the cloth laid for dinner, and everybody in their best to give them their welcoming. John Baird came galloping up the avenue like mad, to tell us that the coach was amaist within sight, and gar us put oursels in order afore the ha’ steps. We were a' standing there in our ranks, and up came the coach rattling and driving, wi' I dinna ken how mony servants riding behind it; and Sir Cland lookit out at the window, and was waving his handkerchief to us, when, just as fast as fire ever flew frae flint, a woman in a red cloak rushed out from among the auld shrubbery at the west end of the house, and flung herself in among the horses’ feet, and the wheels gaed clean out ower her breast, and crushed her dead in a single moment. She never stirred. Poor thing! she was nae Perling Joan then. She was in rags—perfect rags all below the bit cloak ; and we found the bairn, rowed in a checked apron, lying just behind the hedge. A braw heartsome welcoming for a pair of young married folk! ——The History of Matthew Wald.

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