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Wilson's Border Tales
The Recollections of the Village Patriarch

Chapter 2

The Laird

"Ye have asked me if auld Laird Cochrane be still living at the Ha’, which, for three centuries, was the glory and pride of his ancestors. Listen, sir, and ye shall hear concerning him. He was born and brought up amongst us, and for many years he was a blessing to this part of the country. The good he did was incalculable. He was owner of two thousand acres of as excellent land as ye would have found on all the Borders; and I could have defied ony man to hear a poor mouth made throughout the whole length and breadth of his estates. His tenants were all happy, weel-to-do, and content. There wasna a murmur amongst them, nor amongst all his servants. He was a landlord among ten thousand. He was always devising some new scheme or improvement to give employment to the poor; and he would as soon have thought of taking away his own life as distressing a tenant. But the longest day has an end, and so had the goodness and benevolence of Laird Cochrane.

It will be eight-and-twenty years ago, just about this present time, that he took a sort of back-going in his health, and somebody got him advised to go to a place in the south, that they call Tunbridge Wells—one of the places where people, that can afford annually to have fashionable complaints, go to drink mineral waters. He would then be about fifty-two years of age; and the distress of both auld and young in the village was very great at his departure. Men, women, and children, accompanied him a full mile from the porter’s lodge, and when his carriage drove away, there was not one that didna say—‘Heaven bless you!’ On the Sabbath, also, our minister, Mr. Anderson, prayed for him very fervidly.

Weel, we heard no more about the laird, nor how the waters agreed wi’ his stomach, for the space of about two months, when, to our surprise, a rumour got abroad, that he was on the eve of being married. Some folk laughed at the report, and made light of it; but I did no such thing, for I remembered the proverb, that—‘An auld fool is the worst of all fools.’ But, to increase our astonishment, cart-loads of furniture, and numbers of upholsterers, arrived from Edinburgh, and the housekeeper and butler received orders to have everything in readiness, in the best manner, for the reception of their new leddy! There was nothing else talked about in the village for a fortnight, and, I believe, nothing else dreamed about. A clap of thunder bursting out in a new year’s morning, ushering in the year, and continuing for a day without intermission, could not have surprised us more. There were several widows and auld maids in the parish, that the laird allowed so much a year to, and their dinner every Sunday and Wednesday, from the Ha’ kitchen, and they, poor creatures, were in very great distress about the matter. They were principally auld or feckless people, and they were afraid that if their benefactor should stop his bounty, that they would be left to perish. Whether they judged by their own dispositions or not, it is not for me to say; but certain it is, that one and all of them were afraid that his marrying a wife would put an end both to their annuities and the dinners which they received twice a week from his kitchen.

I dinna suppose that there was a great deal the matter wi’ the laird when he went to Tunbridge Wells—like many others he wasna weel from having owre little to do. But he had not been there many days, when his fancy was attracted by a dashing young leddy, of four or five-and-twenty, the daughter of a gentleman who was a dignitary in the church, but who lived up to and rather beyond his income, so that when he should die, his gay family, of whom he had four daughters, would be left penniless. The name of the laird’s intended was Jemima, and she certainly was a pretty woman, and what ye would call a handsome one; but there was a haughtiness about her looks, and a boldness in her carriage, that were far from being becoming in a woman. Her looks and carriage, however, were not her worst fault. She had been taken to the Wells by her mamma, as she termed her mother, for the express purpose of being exhibited—much after the same manner as cattle are exhibited at a fair—to see whether any bachelor or widower would make proposals. Our good laird was smitten, sighed, was accepted, and signed the marriage contract.

The marriage took place immediately, but he didna arrive at the Ha’ wi’ his young wife till the following June. When they did arrive, her father, the divine, was wi’ them, and within a week there was a complete overturning of the whole establishment, from head to foot. They came in twa speck-and-span-new carriages, shining like the sun wi’ silver ornaments. They brought also a leddy’s maid wi’ them, that wore her veils, and her frills, and her fal-de-rals; and the housekeeper declared that, for the first eight days, she didna ken her mistress from the maid; for Miss imitated Madam, and both took such airs upon themselves, that the auld body was confounded, and curtsied to both without distinction, for fear of making a mistake. They also brought a man servant wi’ them, that couldna speak a word like a Christian, nor utter a word but in some heathenish foreign tongue. Within a week the auld servants were driven about from the right hand to the left, and from the left to the right. The incomers ordered them to do this, and to do that, wi’ as much insolence and authority, as if he had been a lord, and she a lady.

But, in a short time, the leddy discovered that all the auld domestics, from the housekeeper and butler down to the scullion wench, some of whom had been in the house for twenty years, were little better than a den of thieves; and, at the Martinmas term, a new race of servants took possession of the Ha’. But this was not the only change which her young leddyship and her father brought about in a few weeks. Her nerves could not stand the smell of vegetables, which arose from the kitchen when the broth was cooling for the widows and their families, the auld maidens, and other helpless persons in the village and neighbourhood, on the Sundays and Wednesdays, and she gave orders that the nuisance should be discontinued. Thus, sir, for the sake of the gentility and delicacy of her ladyship’s organ of smelling, forty stomachs were left twice a week to yearn with hunger. At that time the labouring men on the estate had seven shillings a week, with liberty to keep a cow to graze in the plantations; and those that dwelt by the river side kept ducks and geese, all of which were great helps to them. But her leddyship had an aversion to horned cattle. She never saw them, she said, but she dreamed of them, and to dream of them was to dream of an enemy! The laird endeavoured to laugh her out of such silly notions, and appealed to her father, the dignitary and divine, to prove that belief in dreams was absurd. His reverence agreed that it was ridiculous to place faith in dreams, but he hinted that there were occasions when the wishes of a wife, though a little extravagant, and perhaps absurd, ought to be complied with; and he also stated, that he himself had seen the cattle in question rubbing against the young trees, and nibbling the tender twigs; besides, there were walks through the plantations, and as there might be running cattle amongst them, he certainly thought, with his daughter, that the grazing in the woods ought to be discontinued. His authority was decisive. Next day, the steward was commanded to issue an order that every cotter upon the estate, must either sell his cow, or pay for its grass to a farmer.

This was a sad blow to the poor hedgers and ditchers, and those that work with the spade. There was mourning that day in many a cottage—it was equal to taking a meal a day off every family. But the change that was taking place in their condition did not end there. The divine, like another great and immortal member of the sacred profession—the illustrious Paley—was fond of angling; but there the resemblance between them stopped. I have said that he was fond of angling—but he was short sighted, and one of the worst fishers that ever cracked off a hook, or raised a splash in the water. Once, when he might have preached on the text, that he ‘had toiled all day and caught nothing,’ he was fishing on the river, about a mile above where we now are, when he perceived the geese and ducks of a cottager, swimming and diving their heads in the stream. It immediately occurred to the wise man, that his want of success arose from the geese and ducks destroying all the fish!—and he forthwith prevailed upon his son-in-law to order his tenants to part with their poultry. This was another sair blow to the poor cottagers, and was the cause of their bairns gaun bare-legged in winter, and hungry in summer. The gardens, the avenues, the lodge, everything about the place was altered. But to crown all, the lease of three or four of the laird’s tenants was out at the following Martinmas, and their rents were doubled. Every person marvelled at the change in the conduct and character of the laird. Some thought he had gone out of his wits and others that he was possessed by the Evil One; but the greater part thought, like me, that he was a silly, henpecked man.

A few months after her leddyship arrived, she gave birth to a son and heir, and there were great rejoicings about the Ha’ on this occasion, but very little upon the estate; for already it had become a place that every one saw it would be desirable to leave as soon as possible. As the young birkie grew up, he soon gave evidence of being a sad scapegrace. Never a day passed but we heard of his being in some ploy or other; and his worthy mother said, that it showed a spirit becoming his station in life. Before he had reached man’s estate, he was considered to be a great proficient in horse-racing, cock-fighting, fox-hunting, gambling, and other gentlemanly amusements but as to learning, though he had been both at school and college, I dinna suppose that there is a trade’s lad connected wi’ the Mechanics’ Institution here, that he was fit to haud the candle to. His grandfather, the divine, sometimes lectured him about the little attention which he paid to his learning, but the young hopeful answered—‘That there was no necessity for a gentleman, who was heir to four or five thousand a year, and whose father was seventy years of age, boring over books.’

They generally resided in London, and were never about the Ha’, save during a month or two in the shooting season. We heard, however, that they had fine carryings on in the great city; that they kept up a perpetual course of routes, parties, and assemblies—that the estate was deeply mortgaged; and the laird from the course of dissipation into which he had been dragged, had sunk into premature dotage. It was even reported that Johnny Grippy, the miser, had advanced several thousand pounds upon the estate, at a very exorbitant interest.

At length their course of extravagance, like a lang tether, came to an end. Creditors grew numerous and clamorous; they would have their money, and nothing but their money would satisfy them. The infatuated auld laird sought refuge in the Abbey at Holyrood; and his son went on racing about and gaming as formerly, borrowing money from John Grippy when down here, and from Jews when in London, and giving them promises and securities that would make the estate disappear, when it came into his possession, like snow in summer. Her leddyship came down to the Ha’, and, to my certain knowledge, was refused credit for twenty shillings in a shop in the village here, which was then kept by a son of one of the cotters, that she and her father had caused to part wi’ their kye, and their poultry. This was what the young man called—‘seeing day about wi’ her leddyship.’

The auld laird hadna been twelve months in the Abbey, when, finding himself utterly deserted by his wife and son, he sank into despondency, and died in misery; rueing, I will make free to say, that ever he had set his foot in Tunbridge Wells. His young successor, ingratitude to his mother for her over indulgence, and the example she had set him, turned her from the Ha’ on his taking possession of it, and left her to seek refuge in the house of her father the divine; and we never heard of her in this part of the country again. The career and end of the young laird I will state to ye, as I notice the histories of the Minister, and ne’er-do-weel Tam. And now for that of----

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