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Chapter I. A Beild Quartette

ABOUT nine o'clock on a summer evening four Beild worthies forgathered in Bawbie Windrum's public, and there sat down to have a nip and a crack. Bawbie herself, a fearsome-looking old hag, with a big, clean, white mutch which made her coarse, large-featured face seem even less comely than usual, sat knitting in her corner of the bar, hard by the till, which was her chief concern in this world, whatever it might be in the next.

It was a poor sort of bar, though many a Beild body got " fou" standing in it; the whole hostelry indeed was unpretentious in the extreme. It consisted of a but and ben, the " but" being Bawbie's living room, the " ben" a taproom provided with a long table and wooden benches on either side of it. The stone floor was sanded, and though fairly clean smelled evilly, very doubtful tobacco being smoked perpetually 7 therein. It had no decorations, unless two china dogs on the mantelpiece could be called such ; and it had one picture on the yellow-ochred wall—a highly coloured likeness of Burns' Highland Mary with four lines of poetry beneath. The window was very small, the panes of that knotted greenish glass which you never see anywhere but in the Beild and places like it.; on this account no blind was required, as it would have taken a very sharp-eyed person to see through it. It had been tried often by Leeby Morison looking for her man, before she actually went in to fetch him out. He was there that night, one of the four ; but I shall return to the company presently, when I have told you about the house.

The bar was converted out of a closet between the two rooms, and had a wide bole, as they called it—that is, an open1-ing over a little counter into the passage. Between the narrow counter and the back shelves, on which stood sundry bottles and a glass barrel, of which Bawbie was particularly proud, there was just sufficient space for Bawbie's stool; and there she sat from morn till night knitting for dear life, when not drawing in the coppers, and ready for all the gossip of the countryside. She had a fine vantage-ground on her stool, as it was just opposite the door ; she saw everything that passed, and some things that didn't. She would not have sat so constantly in one spot perhaps, being of an active temperament, only she was a hopeless cripple, and it took her all her time to hirple from her kitchen to the bar and back again. But don't think because Bawbie was a cripple that she was not a capable and exacting manager. What she lacked in bodily activity was made up in mental; some went the length of saying she was not canny. She was assisted in her management of the public by a cousin of her own, a middle-aged woman, of no particular parts, physical or mental, which perhaps was quite as well, it being certain no small house could have held two beings of Bawbie's type.

Bawbie was wont to allude to Kirsty Todd as " donert," and never spared her tongue over her, but she knew very well that she was a patient, honest, painstaking creature, who served her purpose well. Kirsty's appearance was as colourless as her character and lot; she was a long limp person, of cadaverous aspect, with black hair plastered smoothly over her temples and screwed into a tight knot behind. She invariably wore a short wincey gown and a blue check apron, tied loosely round her waist with a cotton tape. She did all the work of the establishment and got no thanks, but appeared to be contented with her lot. There was no other open to her anyhow— as she had no relative in the world besides Bawbie, whose constant fault-finding had never been known to ruffle her in the smallest degree.

It was an extraordinary wet night, which perhaps accounted for the unusually slack time Bawbie was having in the public, and her grim face momentarily brightened when the four worthies crossed the step.

"Beer, Kirsty, fower hauf pints!" she cried out. "Stap in, neebors—it's a fell nicht o' rain, but it'll gar the neeps grow. Kirsty, whaur are ye? Deil tak' the 'ooman ; she's never here when she's wanted. Screw up the lamp yersel', Sandy, an' mak' yersel's at hame."

"A' richt, Bawbie, a' richt; we're no in a hurry," said Sandy soothingly, and they passed into the room—Sandy first, with his lumbering figure, his red head and large soft face, which had no particular expression and generally looked rather vacant. Sandy, however, was by no means vacant, though easy-minded and inclined to " idle-set," as Beild folk had it. His lack of energy was, however, supplemented by the fierce activity of Leeby his wife, who was never at her ease five minutes at a time and could hardly take time to sleep in her bed at night.

There were two Sandy Morisons in the Beild, cousins, and they were very chief; Leeby's man was usually called Big Sandy, and his cousin, who was unmarried, and abode with his father and mother, who had a dairy, Wee Sandy. Wee Sandy drove the milk-cart twice a day on a long round right down to the sea, and was never free till after milking-time at night. Everybody employed at Morison's dairy had to work for dear life and be content with small pay. In addition to the cows, the Morisons kept several pauper lunatics, who considerably added to their income. And terrible stories went through the Beild as to how the poor creatures were treated, having to work harder than any hired person would do, and being fed but jimply. But the Beild was so full of gossip and scandal, that though everybody repeated and believed the tales, they treated the Morisons civilly, for they had siller, and were rather big folk all round.

Wee Sandy, being sole heir to all the gear, was considered rather a catch by Beild lassies, though he was ill conditioned in body and mind, besides being eaten up with conceit of himself. Besides the two Morisons there were Jeems Tamson, a weaver from the head of the Raw—a sociable, genial soul, an old bachelor, and fell fond of a glass, but good company always when under its influence; and Dod Aitken, another weaver, though precious little he wove, being a ne'er-do-weel in every sense of the word, and considered by the majority to be wanting in gumption. He certainly had the look of a wandered soul, but had sufficient sense to manage his own concerns, and some even said he had money laid by in a stocking-foot and had been seen counting it out at night like a miser. He lived quite alone, as so many bachelor men did in the Beild, and made his own porridge and his kale and tea, even cleaning up his own house when it was cleaned, which was seldom. In his way Dod was a character, godless, graceless, and forlorn; yet he had some redeeming points, and was sought after by sociable souls because of his good-nature and his joking turn, which enlivened the company he happened to be in. He was not much given to drink, and when he visited Bawbie's never paid for himself.

Big Sandy lit the lamp and set it down in the middle of the table, and presently Kirsty Todd appeared with a big jug of beer and four mugs, which she set down on the table without saying a word. She never spoke to customers, even if she had known them for years—by some considered a virtue, by others a failing.

The four were in a rollicking mood, and ready for a joke at anybody's expense, but Kirsty Todd, with her yellow face and lank hair, acted as a kind of wet blanket on them, and they suffered her to depart in silence.

"Fegs!" said Big Sandy. "A man micht dae waur than tak' Kirsty Todd. There wad be peace in the house at least."

And there was a shade of regret in his face as he recollected sundry cutting phrases with which Leeby his spouse had driven him that night from the fireside; and all because he, being a weaver also, would not start that very night to the new web he had carried all the way from Cairndrum on his shoulder.

"Eh, michty," said Dod Aitken, as he took a long draught from his mug, " I wadna like to tackle Kirsty Todd. As weel a'maist be tied till a corp, an' bide in the kirkyaird."

This poor sally of course provoked a roar of laughter; and presently Wee Sandy, looking earnestly at Dod, with rather a mischievous gleam in his small bleared eyes, asked a question,—

" I say, Dod, ye've never yet telt us what way ye hinna mairret. Had ye ever a lass ? "

Dod gave his greasy old bonnet a push back to the angle of his head, and his ill-favoured face assumed a particularly knowing look.

"Ay, a guid wheen—mair than ye wad think. But I'm no to be drawn on that pint. There's some things a man keeps to himsel'."

"But, Dod, tell's what way ye hinna mairret," pursued Wee Sandy, and gave a chap on the table which indicated to Kirsty Todd that the beer was done, and she could fetch in the whisky.

"As weel ask Jeems Tamson as me," said Dod rather slily; but nobody did ask Jeems, and they even felt, rude and uncouth though they were, that it was a perfectly uncalled-for remark, which nobody but a daft gomeril like Dod would have made. For everybody in the Beild knew Jeems Tamson's early love-story—how he had been engaged to Katie Christie, and how she had died before she was twenty ; also how true he had been to her memory, never looking at another woman.

"Are ye on for a ploy, lads? " said Big Sandy presently. "Tak' anither dram, Dod—as langs it's guid. Bawbie's bottle hasna touched it yet."

This was an allusion to Bawbie's reported habit of adulterating her whisky with vitriol when her customers were too far gone to recognise it.

Thus admonished Dod took a particularly big dram, and then inquired in a voice already growing a trifle thick what was the nature of the " ploy."

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