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Book of Scottish Story
The Grave-Digger's Tale

It was one cold November morning, on the day of an intended voyage, when Mrs M‘Cosey, my landlady, tapped at my bed-chamber door, informing me that it was "braid day light;” but on reaching the caller air I found, by my watch and the light of the moon, that I had full two hours to spare for such sublunary delights as such a circumstance might create. A traveller, when he has once taken his leave, and rung the changes of "farewell,” "adieu,” "good-bye,” and "God bless you,” on the connubial and domestic harmonies of his last lodgings, will rather hazard his health by an exposure to the "pelting of the pitiless storm," for a handful of hours, than try an experiment on his landlady’s sincerity a second time, within the short space of the same moon. If casualty should force him to make an abrupt return, enviable must be his feelings if they withstand the cold unfriendly welcome of "Ye’re no awa yet!” delivered by some quivering Abigail, in sylvan equipment, like one of Dian’s foresters, as she slowly and uninvitingly opens the creaking door—a commentary on the forbidding salute. He enters, and the strong. caloric now beginning to thaw his sensibilities, he makes for his room, which lie forgets is no longer ‘his’; when, though he be still in the dark, he has no need of a candle to enable him to discover that some kind remembrancer has already been rummaging his corner cupboard, making lawful seizure and removal ("‘convey’ the wise it call”) of the contents of his tea-caddy, butter-kit, sugar-bowl, and "comforter;” to which he had looked forward, on his return, as a small solace for the disappointment of the morning, affording him the means of knocking up a comfortable "check,” without again distressing the exchequer.

I had therefore determined not to return to Mrs M‘Cosey’s; for "frailty, thy name is woman;” and I felt myself getting into a sad frame of mind, as I involuntarily strolled a considerable distance along the high road, pondering on the best means of walking "out of the air,” as Hamlet says, when, as the moon receded behind a black cloud, my head came full butt against a wall; the concussion making it ring, till I actually imagined I could distinguish something like a tune from my brain. Surely, said I, this is no melody of my making; as I now heard, like two voices trolling a merry stave--

“Duncan’s comin', Donald’s comin’, &c.”

Turning round to the direction from whence the sound seemed to proceed, I perceived I was in the neighbourhood of the "Auld Kirk Yard ;” where, by the light from his lantern, I could discover the old grave-digger at work--his bald head, with single white and silvery-crisped forelock, making transits over the dark line of the grave, like a white-crested dove, or a sea-gull, flaunting over the yawning gulf.

One stride, and I had cleared the wall of the Auld Kirk Yard.

"You seem merry, old boy !—You are conscious, I presume, that this world has few troubles that can affect you in your present situation—the grave.”

"I was takin’ my medicine to keep my heart up, sir; but I wasna merry: yet I’m content wi’ my station, and am a thocht independent. I court the company o’ nae man alive; I boo to nae man breathin’—I quarrel nane wi’ my neebours;—yet am I sought after by high and low, rich and puir; the king himsel maun come under my rule—this rod of airn ;—though I’m grown frail and feckless afore my time : for healthy as my looks be, I’rn aye, aye at death’s door; our work, ye see, sir, ’s a’ below the breath; and that’s a sair trade for takin’ the wind oot o'a body. Then, I hae my trials,—sair visitations, sic as fa’ to the lot o’ nae man on this side the grave but mysel! It's true, that when the wind gaes round merrily to the east, I get a sma’ share o’ what’s gaun ; but just look at that yird, sir, — as bonnie a healthy yird as ane could delight to lie in;—neist, look at that spear,—a fortnight’s rust upon that dibble! Mind, I downa complain ;— ‘Live, and let live, say I

"But what’s the use of talkin’ sae to a life-like, graceless, thochtless, bairn-getting parish ?—the feck o’ whom, after having lived on the fat o’ the kintraside, naething will sair, but they maun gang up to the town to lay their banes amang the gentles, and creesh some hungry yird wi'their marrow ! The fa’ o’ the leaf is come and gane ; an’ saving some twa or three consumptions—for whilk the Lord be thankit, as a sma’ fend---tak the parish a’ ower head—frae head to tail—and for ane that gaes out at my gate-end, ye’ll find a score come in at the howdie’s ! ”

‘Damna famae majora quam quae aestimari possint.’
(The loss of reputation is greater than can be reckoned.)

"I hae lost my Gaelic: sir; but ye speak like a sensible man. The fame o’ the place is just as ye say, there’s
ower mony ‘merry pows in’t.’ But see, there is a sober pow, wi'a siller clasp on’t.

"With all due gravity, may I ask, whose property was that ? ”

"Hech, man! that’s a skeigh tune for a dry whistle; sae, gin ye please, we’ll tak our morning first."

So saying, he took his spade, and cutting steps in the side of the grave he was digging, he mounted to the surface ; then, walking off a few paces, I saw him strike some dark substance lying on a flat stone; when, to my astonishment, a Flibbertigibbet-looking creature unrolled itself, from a rnortcloth, at my feet.

"Hannibal Grub, my ’prentice, sir, at your service. —Hawney, tak the shanker ower to Jenny Nailor’s, an'
bring a dooble-floorer to the gentleman; an', hear ye, say it’s for the minister’s wife—fourpenny strunt, Grub, mind--nae pinchin’. If ye meet his reverence, honest man, tell him ye’re gaun for oil to the cruizie.”

"That auld wizzened pow is a’ that’s left o'the Laird o’ Nettleriggs. It was lying face down, when I cam till’t this morning, maist horrif`u’ to see; for he mann hae turned in his kist, or been buried back upwards! It was ae blawy, sleety nicht, about this time twal-year, when I was sent for express to speak wi’ the laird. Thinkin’ that he maybe wanted the family lair snodded out, or a new coat o’ paint to the staunchels, I set out without delay. I had four mile o’ gate to gang on a darksome dreary road, an’ I couldna but say that I felt mair eerie than I had ever felt in my ain plantin’, amang honest folk. Sae, wi’ your leave, I’ll just put in ane o’ Jenny’s screws, afore I gae ony farther. Here’s wishing better acquaintance to us, sir.—Is this frae the ‘ Broon Coo,’ Grub?"

"Ay !"groaned an unearthly voice, as if the "Broon Cow"herself had spoken.

"Weel, I gaed, an’ I better gaed. ‘The wind blew as ’twad blawn its last;’ the fitfu’ changes o’ the shrouded moon threw flitting shadows across my path ; —whiles like a muckle colley, and syne as if I stood on the brink o’ a dreadfu’ precipice, when I wad then stand still, till the moon shone again. The bleach-field dogs sent round their lang, uncanny bodings ; the vera cocks crawed,—sic horror had the time; the last leaves o’ hairst were driftin’ an’ clatterin’ amang my feet—whiles hittin’ me like a whup on the face ; or tappin’ me on the back, as if ane wad say, ‘Saunders, this is death!’ when I wad then stand stock-still again, my knees fechtin’ an’ thumpin’ at ane anither, and my teeth gaun like a watchman’s rattle; while noos and thans, the wind wad howl and birr, as if the Prince o'Air himsel were pipin’ to the clouds. I ne’er doubted thae things to be the bodings o’ death ; but I thocht sic feydoms might hae been better wared on a muckle better man than me. At length I got to the house-door, as the laird’s messan began to bark.

"‘Look to the door, Peggy !’ quo’ the gudewife.

"‘Ay, mither. Jock, look to the door for your mither, will ye no?’

"‘Look till’t yersel! Can I gang, when I’m greetin’ this way ?—Pate—look to the door !’ .

"‘I’m greetin’ too,’ says Pate.

"‘Peggy Mucklewham, will ye no look to the door, for your deein’ faither’s sake ? ’

"‘Tuts! ’ quo’ Peggy, ‘ Can ye not get up yersel—fashin’ folk ?’

"Weel, I then got entrance—the sneck being cannily lifted, an’ the bairns makin’ a breenge into a hidin’ corner, until, by the light o’ the fire, they kent my face.

"‘Ou, it’s auld Saunders, as sure as death. Ay, man, my faither’s real ill--he’s just gaspin,’ and that’s a’! Hear till that—that’s him whistlin’ ! Hae ye no brought Towzie wi’ ye? Man, Pate and me wad hae’n sic grand fun chasin’ the mawkins, when my mither’s at the kirk the morn.’

"‘Are ye sorry to lose your faither, bairnies?’ quo’ I.

"‘ Ou, ay,’ quo’ Pate, ‘but I dinna like to look at him, he maks sic awfu’ faces, man; but I hae been thrang greetin’, sin’ four o’ clock even on—twice as muckle’s Jock ! ’

"A lang deep groan now was heard from out o’ the spence, whaur the laird was lying ; and the bairnies, in a fricht, ran screeching to anither apartment, leaving the youngest wean by the fireside, rowed in ane o’ the auld man’s black coats.

"‘Gude save us, lammie !’ quo’ I, ‘is there naebody tending your puir auld faither? Whaur’s uncle, larnmie? and aunty? and your minnie, lammie? ’ I mind weel the bit bairnie’s answer-- "Unkey a’ doon—aunty a'doon—daddy a’ doon ! ’

“Mrs Mucklewham was a stout buirdly quean, like a house-end; and the laird was just a bit han’fu’ o’ a cratur—a bit saxteen-to-tbe- dizzen body. They were a pair o’whom it was said, by the kintraside, that they had married afore they had courted. The laird was an auld man when he brought hame a woman thirty years younger than himsel ;-—auld folk are twice bairns, and he was beginning to need nursing. It’s wonderfu’ to think how little a matter hinders gentle-bred folk frae getting on in the warld ! A’ that Jenny Screameger wantit o’ the complete leddy was the bit dirty penny siller ; an’ sae they were joined thegither, without its ever being mentioned in the contract, or understood, that they bound and obliged themselves to hae a heart-liking for ane anither !

"She had been keepit by the gudeman geyan short by the tether; sae as her hale life was made just a dull round till her—o’ rising and lying down—eating, drinking, and sleeping--feeding the pigs, milking the cow—flyting the servant — and skelping the weans a’ round ;—unless when she dreamed o’ burials, or saw a spale at the candle—or heard o’ a murder committed in the neighbourhood-—or a marriage made or broken atf—or a criminal to suffer on the gallows; till at her advanced time o’ life it was grown just as neccessar’ that food should be gotten for her mind’s maintenance, as it was for her body’s.

"‘This is a sair time for ye, Mrs Mucklewhanmf quo’ I, as she cam ben frae her bedroom gauntin’.

"‘Hey! ho! hy! Saunders—I haena closed an ee thae twa lang nichts ! But I hear there’s something gaun to be dune noo—Hey! Ho! hy !’

"I stappit ben wi’ her to the laird’s room ; and I saw in his face he was bespoken. Everything was laid out in the room, comfortable and in apple-pie order, befitting the occasion. The straughtin’ board, on whilk his death’s ee was fixed, stood up against the wa’ ; here lay a bowt o’ tippeny knittin’ for binding his limbs, and as mony black preens as wad hae stockit a shop; there hung his dead shirt, o’ new hamespun claith, providently airing afore the fire.

"‘Gin ye be thrang, Saunders, ye needna wait on the gudeman—ye ken his length—and gie him a deep biel,’ quo’ the gudewife ; when just as I laid my hand upon his brow, he fixed his ee upon me like a hawk; an’ after anither kirkyard groan—the like I never heard from mortal man—he seemed reviving, an’ new strength to be filling his limbs, as he rose up on his elbow, on the bed, and laid his other hand on mine--sic an icy hand as I never felt abune grund I —thus speaking to me in his seeming agony:

"‘Saunders, do not pray for me; I have been long a dead man ; lay your hand upon my bosom, and you will feel the flames of hell ascending to my soul !’ I laid my hand upon his heart, and I declare, sir, I thocht the flesh wad hae cindered aff the finger-banes! The heat was just awfu’!

"‘I was made life-renter of a sum which at my decease descends to the younger branches of my father’s family; and my life has been miserable to myself—a burden to others—and my death the desire of my kindred !’

"‘He’s raving, Saunders-—he’s clean raving! An’ I canna persuade him he’s a deein’ man,’ quo’ Mrs Mucklewham, as she stapped forrit wi’ a red bottle, to gie him a quatenin’ dram.

"‘Haud, hand l’ quo’ I, ‘he’ll do without it,’as the laird, raising his voice, began again to speak :

"‘I had but one friend in the world,—the highwayman that robbed me, and then laid my skull open with
the butt-end of his whip ;—would to God he had made me a beggar, and saved my soul! I had no worse wish to bestow on him than that he might be a life-renter for his poor relations. - Saunders, look on the face of that un-feeling wornan—more horrible to me than death itself ;—look on my deserted death-bed, and my chamber decorated like a charnel house? Horrible as the sensation of death is, as his iron gropings are stealing round my heart, there is yet to me a sight more hideous, and which I thank God I shall be spared witnessing—‘when the dead shall bury the dead!’

"Mrs Mucklewham broke frae my weak hand—wrenched open his locked teeth, and emptied the hale contents down his throat—grunds an'a’—o’ his ‘quatenin’ draught ;’ I felt myself a’ ‘ug’, as I saw his teeth gnash thegither, an’ his lips close in quateness for ever.

"I gaed out wi’ the mortclaith ; I saw the gathering; I was present when the bread an’ dram service were waiting for the grace :—"Try ye’t, John,’ quo’ ane. ‘ Begin yersel; ye’re dead sweer,’ quo'anither ; when I heard ane break down an’ auld prayer into twa blessin’s. Some were crackin’ about the rise o’ oats; some about the fa’ o’ hay. His bit callans were there in rowth o’ claith; auld elbows of coats mak gude breek-knees for bairns. I saw the coffin carried out to the hearse without ane admiring its bonnie gilding—quite sair and melancholy to see ! I saw the bedral bodies, wi’ their light-coloured gravats, an'rusty black cowls, stufting their wide pouches—maist pitifu’, I thought, to behold. Then I saw the house-servants, wha had drunk deepest o’ the cup o’ woe; till sae mista’en were their notions o’ sorrow, that they were just by the conception o'the mind o’ man. Then there was sic a clanjamphry o’ beggars ; some praising the laird for virtues that they wha kenned him kent they were failings in him ; an’ ithers were cracking o’ familiarities wi’ him, that might hae been painful to his nearest o’ kin to hear : there was but srna’ grief when they first gathered ; but when they learned there was nae awmous for them, I trow ony tears that were shed at the burial were o’ their drappin’.

"There was the witless idewit Jock Murra, mair mournfu’ to see than a'that was sad there ; when just as the hearse began to move on, he liltit up a rantin’ sang--

‘Mony an awmous I’ve got.’

I lookit round me when the company began to move on frae the house wi’ the hearse ; but as I shall answer, sir, there wasna ae face that lookit sad but might as well hae smiled; the vera look o’t, in a Christian land, broucht the saut tears gushing frae my ain auld dry withered ee !

"In compliance with the friends’ request, as it was a lang road to come back, his will had been read afore the interment when sae rnuckle was left to ae hospital, an’ sae muckle to anither, as if the only gude he had ever done was reserved for the day o’ his burial; or like ane wha delays his letter till after the mail shuts, and then pays thrice the sum to overtake the coach. It was the certainty o’ thae things that made it the maist mournfu’ plantin’ I e’er made; an’ I threw the yird on him, as he was let down by stranger hands (for the friends excused themselves frae gaun ony farther, after they had heard his will), and happit him up, wi’ a heavier heart than on the morning when I took my ain wifie frace my side, an’ laid her in the clay.—You’ll excuse me, sir; here’s ‘success to trade !"’--“The Auld Kirk Yard.”

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