Volume I

Letter X

Darsie Latimer to Alan Fairford

Walter Scott

THE plot thickens, Alan. I have your letter, and also one from your father. The last makes it impossible for me to comply with the kind request which the former urges. No—I cannot be with you, Alan; and that, for the best of all reasons—I cannot and ought not to counteract your father’s anxious wishes. I do not take it unkind of him that he desires my absence. It is natural that he should wish for his son what his son so well deserves—the advantage of a wiser and steadier companion than I seem to him. And yet I am sure I have often laboured hard enough to acquire that decency of demeanour which can no more be suspected of breaking bounds, than an owl of catching a butterfly.

But it was in vain that I have knitted my brows till I had the headache, in order to acquire the reputation of a grave, solid, and well-judging youth. Your father always has discovered, or thought that he discovered, a hare-brained eccentricity lying folded among the wrinkles of my forehead, which rendered me a perilous associate for the future counsellor and ultimate judge. Well, Corporal Nym’s philosophy must be my comfort—“Things must be as they may.”—I cannot come to your father’s house, where he wishes not to see me; and as to your coming hither,—by all that is dear to me, I vow that if you are guilty of such a piece of reckless folly—not to say undutiful cruelty, considering your father’s thoughts and wishes—I will never speak to you again as long as I live! I am perfectly serious. And besides, your father, while he in a manner prohibits me from returning to Edinburgh, gives me the strongest reasons for continuing a little while longer in this country, by holding out the hope that I may receive from your old friend, Mr. Herries of Birrenswork, some particulars concerning my origin, with which that ancient recusant seems to be acquainted.

That gentleman mentioned the name of a family in Westmoreland, with which he supposes me connected. My inquiries here after such a family have been ineffectual, for the borderers, on either side, know little of each other. But I shall doubtless find some English person of whom to make inquiries, since the confounded fetterlock clapped on my movements by old Griffiths, prevents me repairing to England in person. At least, the prospect of obtaining some information is greater here than elsewhere; it will be an apology for my making a longer stay in this neighbourhood, a line of conduct which seems to have your father’s sanction, whose opinion must be sounder than that of your wandering damoselle.

If the road were paved with dangers which leads to such a discovery, I cannot for a moment hesitate to tread it. But in fact there is no peril in the case. If the Tritons of the Solway shall proceed to pull down honest Joshua’s tide-nets, I am neither Quixote enough in disposition, nor Goliath enough in person, to attempt their protection. I have no idea of attempting to prop a falling house by putting my shoulders against it. And indeed, Joshua gave me a hint that the company which he belongs to, injured in the way threatened (some of them being men who thought after the fashion of the world), would pursue the rioters at law, and recover damages, in which probably his own ideas of non-resistance will not prevent his participating. Therefore the whole affair will take its course as law will, as I only mean to interfere when it may be necessary to direct the course of the plaintiffs to thy chambers; and I request they may find thee intimate with all the Scottish statutes concerning salmon fisheries, from the Lex Aquarum, downward.

As for the Lady of the Mantle, I will lay a wager that the sun so bedazzled thine eyes on that memorable morning, that everything thou didst look upon seemed green; and notwithstanding James Wilkinson’s experience in the Fusileers, as well as his negative whistle, I will venture to hold a crown that she is but a what-shall-call-’um after all. Let not even the gold persuade you to the contrary. She may make a shift to cause you to disgorge that, and (immense spoil!) a session’s fees to boot, if you look not all the sharper about you. Or if it should be otherwise, and if indeed there lurk some mystery under this visitation, credit me, it is one which thou canst not penetrate, nor can I as yet even attempt to explain it; since, if I prove mistaken, and mistaken I may easily be, I would be fain to creep into Phalaris’s bull, were it standing before me ready heated, rather than be roasted with thy raillery. Do not tax me with want of confidence; for the instant I can throw any light on the matter thou shalt have it; but while I am only blundering about in the dark, I do not choose to call wise folks to see me, perchance, break my nose against a post. So if you marvel at this,

E’en marvel on till time makes all things plain.

In the meantime, kind Alan, let me proceed in my diurnal.

On the third or fourth day after my arrival at Mount Sharon, Time, that bald sexton to whom I have just referred you, did certainly limp more heavily along with me than he had done at first. The quaint morality of Joshua, and Huguenot simplicity of his sister, began to lose much of their raciness with their novelty, and my mode of life, by dint of being very quiet, began to feel abominably dull. It was, as thou say’st, as if the Quakers had put the sun in their pockets—all around was soft and mild, and even pleasant; but there was, in the whole routine, a uniformity, a want of interest, a helpless and hopeless languor, which rendered life insipid. No doubt, my worthy host and hostess felt none of this void, this want of excitation, which was becoming oppressive to their guest. They had their little round of occupations, charities, and pleasures; Rachel had her poultry-yard and conservatory, and Joshua his garden. Besides this, they enjoyed, doubtless, their devotional meditations; and, on the whole, time glided softly and imperceptibly on with them, though to me, who long for stream and cataract, it seemed absolutely to stand still. I meditated returning to Shepherd’s Bush, and began to think, with some hankering, after little Benjie and the rod. The imp has ventured hither, and hovers about to catch a peep of me now and then; I suppose the little sharper is angling for a few more sixpences. But this would have been, in Joshua’s eyes, a return of the washed sow to wallowing in the mire, and I resolved, while I remained his guest, to spare him so violent a shock to his prejudices. The next point was, to shorten the time of my proposed stay; but, alas! that I felt to be equally impossible. I had named a week; and however rashly my promise had been pledged, it must be held sacred, even according to the letter, from which the Friends permit no deviation.

All these considerations wrought me up to a kind of impatience yesterday evening; so that I snatched up my hat, and prepared for a sally beyond the cultivated farm and ornamented grounds of Mount Sharon, just as if I were desirous to escape from the realms of art, into those of free and unconstrained nature.

I was scarcely more delighted when I first entered this peaceful demesne, than I now was—such is the instability and inconsistency of human nature!—when I escaped from it to the open downs, which had formerly seemed so waste and dreary, The air I breathed felt purer and more bracing. The clouds, riding high upon a summer breeze, drove, in gay succession, over my head, now obscuring the sun, now letting its rays stream in transient flashes upon various parts of the landscape, and especially upon the broad mirror of the distant Firth of Solway.

I advanced on the scene with the light step of a liberated captive; and, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim, could have found in my heart to sing as I went on my way. It seemed as if my gaiety had accumulated while suppressed, and that I was, in my present joyous mood, entitled to expend the savings of the previous week. But just as I was about to uplift a merry stave, I heard, to my joyful surprise, the voices of three or more choristers, singing, with considerable success, the lively old catch,

For all our men were very very merry,
    And all our men were drinking:
There were two men of mine,
Three men of thine,
And three that belonged to old Sir Thom o’ Lyne;
As they went to the ferry, they were very very merry,
    And all our men were drinking.”1

As the chorus ended, there followed a loud and hearty laugh by way of cheers. Attracted by sounds which were so congenial to my present feelings, I made towards the spot from which they came,—cautiously, however, for the downs, as had been repeatedly hinted to me, had no good name; and the attraction of the music, without rivalling that of the sirens in melody, might have been followed by similarly inconvenient consequences to an incautious amateur.

I crept on, therefore, trusting that the sinuosities of the ground, broken as it was into knells and sand-pits, would permit me to obtain a sight of the musicians before I should be observed by them. As I advanced, the old ditty was again raised. The voices seemed those of a man and two boys; they were rough, but kept good time, and were managed with too much skill to belong to the ordinary country people.

“Jack looked at the sun, and cried, Fire, fire, fire;
Tom stabled his keffel in Birkendale mire;
Jem started a calf, and halloo’d for a stag;
Will mounted a gate-post instead of his nag:
For all our men were very, very merry,
    And all our men were drinking;
There were two men of mine,
Three men of thine,
And three that belonged to old Sir Thom o’ Lyne;
As they went to the ferry, they were very, very merry,
    For all our men were drinking.”

The voices, as they mixed in their several parts, and ran through them, untwisting and again entwining all the links of the merry old catch, seemed to have a little touch of the bacchanalian spirit which they celebrated, and showed plainly that the musicians were engaged in the same joyous revel as the menyie of old Sir Thom o’ Lyne. At length I came within sight of them, three in number, where they sat cosily niched into what you might call a bunker, a little sand-pit, dry and snug, and surrounded by its banks, and a screen of whins in full bloom.

The only one of the trio whom I recognized as a personal acquaintance was the notorious little Benjie, who, having just finished his stave, was cramming a huge luncheon of pie-crust into his mouth with one hand, while in the other he held a foaming tankard, his eyes dancing with all the glee of a forbidden revel; and his features, which have at all times a mischievous archness of expression, confessing the full sweetness of stolen waters, and bread eaten in secret.

There was no mistaking the profession of the male and female, who were partners with Benjie in these merry doings. The man’s long loose-bodied greatcoat (wrap-rascal as the vulgar term it), the fiddle-case, with its straps, which lay beside him, and a small knapsack which might contain his few necessaries; a clear grey eye; features which, in contending with many a storm, had not lost a wild and, careless expression of glee, animated at present, when he was exercising for his own pleasure the arts which he usually practised for bread,—all announced one of those peripatetic followers of Orpheus whom the vulgar call a strolling fiddler. Gazing more attentively, I easily discovered that though the poor musician’s eyes were open, their sense was shut, and that the ecstasy with which he turned them up to heaven only derived its apparent expression from his own internal emotions, but received no assistance from the visible objects around. Beside him sat his female companion, in a man’s hat, a blue coat, which seemed also to have been an article of male apparel, and a red petticoat. She was cleaner, in person and in clothes, than such itinerants generally are; and, having been in her day a strapping bona roba, she did not even yet neglect some attention to her appearance; wore a large amber necklace, and silver ear-rings, and had her laid fastened across her breast with a brooch of the same metal.

The man also looked clean, notwithstanding the meanness of his attire, and had a decent silk handkerchief well knotted about his throat, under which peeped a clean owerlay. His beard, also, instead of displaying a grizzly stubble, unmowed for several days, flowed in thick and comely abundance over the breast, to the length of six inches, and mingled with his hair, which was but beginning to exhibit a touch of age. To sum up his appearance, the loose garment which I have described was secured around him by a large old-fashioned belt, with brass studs, in which hung a dirk, with a knife and fork, its usual accompaniments. Altogether, there was something more wild and adventurous-looking about the man than I could have expected to see in an ordinary modern crowder; and the bow which he now and then drew across the violin, to direct his little choir, was decidedly that of no ordinary performer.

You must understand that many of these observations were the fruits of after remark; for I had scarce approached so near as to get a distinct view of the party, when my friend Benjie’s lurching attendant, which he calls by the appropriate name of Hemp, began to cock his tail and ears, and, sensible of my presence, flew, barking like a fury, to the place where I had meant to lie concealed till I heard another song. I was obliged, however, to jump on my feet, and intimidate Hemp, who would otherwise have bit me, by two sound kicks on the ribs, which sent him howling back to his master.

Little Benjie seemed somewhat dismayed at my appearance; but, calculating on my placability, and remembering, perhaps, that the ill-used Solomon was no palfrey of mine, he speedily affected great glee, and almost in one breath assured the itinerants that I was “a grand gentleman, and had plenty of money, and was very kind to poor folk;” and informed me that this was “Willie Steenson—Wandering Willie the best fiddler that ever kittled thairm with horse-hair.”

The woman rose and curtsied; and Wandering Willie sanctioned his own praises with a nod, and the ejaculation, “All is true that the little boy says.”

I asked him if he was of this country.

This country!” replied the blind man—“I am of every country in broad Scotland, and a wee bit of England to the boot. But yet I am, in some sense, of this country; for I was born within hearing of the roar of Solway. Will I give your honour a touch of the auld bread-winner?”

He preluded as he spoke, in a manner which really excited my curiosity; and then, taking the old tune of Galashiels for his theme, he graced it with a number of wild, complicated, and beautiful variations; during which it was wonderful to observe how his sightless face was lighted up under the conscious pride and heartfelt delight in the exercise of his own very considerable powers.

“What think you of that, now, for threescore and twa?”

I expressed my surprise and pleasure.

“A rant, man—an auld rant,” said Willie; “naething like the music ye hae in your ballhouses and your playhouses in Edinbro’; but it’s weel aneugh anes in a way at a dykeside. Here’s another—it’s no a Scotch tune, but it passes for ane—Oswald made it himsell, I reckon—he has cheated mony ane, but he canna cheat Wandering Willie.”

He then played your favourite air of Roslin Castle, with a number of beautiful variations, some of which I am certain were almost extempore.

“You have another fiddle there, my friend,” said I—“Have you a comrade?” But Willie’s ears were deaf, or his attention was still busied with the tune.

The female replied in his stead, “O aye, sir—troth we have a partner—a gangrel body like oursells. No but my hinny might have been better if he had liked; for mony a bein nook in mony a braw house has been offered to my hinny Willie, if he wad but just bide still and play to the gentles.”

“Whisht, woman! whisht!” said the blind man, angrily, shaking his locks; “dinna deave the gentleman wi’ your havers. Stay in a house and play to the gentles!—strike up when my leddy pleases, and lay down the bow when my lord bids! Na, na, that’s nae life for Willie. Look out, Maggie—peer out, woman, and see if ye can see Robin coming. Deil be in him! He has got to the lee-side of some smuggler’s punch-bowl, and he wunna budge the night, I doubt.”

“That is your consort’s instrument,” said I—“Will you give me leave to try my skill?” I slipped at the same time a shilling into the woman’s hand.

“I dinna ken whether I dare trust Robin’s fiddle to ye,” said Willie, bluntly. His wife gave him a twitch. “Hout awa, Maggie,” he said in contempt of the hint; “though the gentleman may hae gien ye siller, he may have nae bowhand for a’ that, and I’ll no trust Robin’s fiddle wi’ an ignoramus. But that’s no sae muckle amiss,” he added, as I began to touch the instrument; “I am thinking ye have some skill o’ the craft.”

To confirm him in this favourable opinion, I began to execute such a complicated flourish as I thought must have turned Crowdero into a pillar of stone with envy and wonder. I scaled the top of the finger-board, to dive at once to the bottom—skipped with flying fingers, like Timotheus, from shift to shift—struck arpeggios and harmonic tones, but without exciting any of the astonishment which I had expected.

Willie indeed listened to me with considerable attention; but I was no sooner finished, than he immediately mimicked on his own instrument the fantastic complication of tones which I had produced, and made so whimsical a parody of my performance, that, although somewhat angry, I could not help laughing heartily, in which I was joined by Benjie, whose reverence for me held him under no restraint; while the poor dame, fearful, doubtless, of my taking offence at this familiarity, seemed divided betwixt her conjugal reverence for her Willie, and her desire to give him a hint for his guidance.

At length the old man stopped of his own accord, and, as if he had sufficiently rebuked me by his mimicry, he said, “But for a’ that, ye will play very weel wi’ a little practice and some gude teaching. But ye maun learn to put the heart into it, man—to put the heart into it.”

I played an air in simpler taste, and received more decided approbation.

“That’s something like it man. Od, ye are a clever birkie!”

The woman touched his coat again. “The gentleman is a gentleman, Willie—ye maunna speak that gate to him, hinnie.”

“The deevil I maunna!” said Willie; “and what for maunna I?—If he was ten gentles, he canna draw a bow like me, can he?”

“Indeed I cannot, my honest friend,” said I; “and if you will go with me to a house hard by, I would be glad to have a night with you.”

Here I looked round, and observed Benjie smothering a laugh, which I was sure had mischief in it. I seized him suddenly by the ear, and made him confess that he was laughing at the thoughts of the reception which a fiddler was likely to get from the Quakers at Mount Sharon. I chucked him from me, not sorry that his mirth had reminded me in time of what I had for the moment forgotten; and invited the itinerant to go with me to Shepherd’s Bush, from which I proposed to send word to Mr. Geddes that I should not return home that evening. But the minstrel declined this invitation also. He was engaged for the night, he said, to a dance in the neighbourhood, and vented a round execration on the laziness or drunkenness of his comrade, who had not appeared at the place of rendezvous.

“I will go with you instead of him,” said I, in a sudden whim; “and I will give you a crown to introduce me as your comrade.”

You gang instead of Rob the Rambler! My certie, freend, ye are no blate!” answered Wandering Willie, in a tone which announced death to my frolic.

But Maggie, whom the offer of the crown had not escaped, began to open on that scent with a maundering sort of lecture. “Oh Willie! hinny Willie, whan will ye learn to be wise? There’s a crown to be win for naething but saying ae man’s name instead of anither. And, wae’s me! I hae just a shilling of this gentleman’s gieing, and a boddle of my ain; and ye wunna, bend your will sae muckle as to take up the siller that’s flung at your feet! Ye will die the death of a cadger’s powney, in a wreath of drift! and what can I do better than lie doun and die wi’ you? for ye winna let me win siller to keep either you or mysell leevin.”

“Haud your nonsense tongue, woman,” said Willie, but less absolutely than before. “Is he a real gentleman, or ane of the player-men?”

“I’se uphaud him a real gentleman,” said the woman.

“I’se uphaud ye ken little of the matter,” said Willie; “let us see haud of your hand, neebor, gin ye like.

I gave him my hand. He said to himself, “Aye, aye, here are fingers that have seen canny service.” Then running his hand over my hair, my face, and my dress, he went on with his soliloquy; “Aye, aye, muisted hair, braidclaith o’ the best, and seenteen hundred linen on his back, at the least o’ it. And how do you think, my braw birkie, that you are to pass for a tramping fiddler?”

“My dress is plain,” said I,—indeed I had chosen my most ordinary suit, out of compliment to my Quaker friends,—“and I can easily pass for a young farmer out upon a frolic. Come, I will double the crown I promised you.”

“Damn your crowns!” said the disinterested man of music. “I would like to have a round wi’ you, that’s certain;—but a farmer, and with a hand that never held pleugh-stilt or pettle, that will never do. Ye may pass for a trades-lad from Dumfries, or a student upon the ramble, or the like o’ that. But hark ye, lad; if ye expect to be ranting among the queans o’ lasses where ye are gaun, ye will come by the waur, I can tell ye; for the fishers are wild chaps, and will bide nae taunts.”

I promised to be civil and cautious; and, to smooth the good woman, I slipped the promised piece into her hand. The acute organs of the blind man detected this little manoeuvre.

“Are ye at it again wi’ the siller, ye jaud? I’ll be sworn ye wad rather hear ae twalpenny clink against another, than have a spring from Rory Dall,1 if he was-coming alive again anes errand. Gang doun the gate to Lucky Gregson’s and get the things ye want, and bide there till ele’en hours in the morn; and if you see Robin, send him on to me.”

“Am I no gaun to the ploy, then?” said Maggie, in a disappointed tone.

“And what for should ye?” said her lord and master; “to dance a’ night, I’se warrant, and no to be fit to walk your tae’s-length the morn, and we have ten Scots miles afore us? Na, na. Stable the steed, and pit your wife to bed, when there’s night wark to do.”

“Aweel, aweel, Willie hinnie, ye ken best; but oh, take an unco care o’ yoursell, and mind ye haena the blessing o’ sight.”

“Your tongue gars me whiles tire of the blessing of hearing, woman,” replied Willie, in answer to this tender exhortation.

But I now put in for my interest. “Hollo, good folks, remember that I am to send the boy to Mount Sharon, and if you go to the Shepherd’s Bush, honest woman, how the deuce am I to guide the blind man where he is going? I know little or nothing of the country.”

“And ye ken mickle less of my hinnie, sir,” replied Maggie, “that think he needs ony guiding; he’s the best guide himsell that ye’ll find between Criffell and Carlisle. Horse-road and foot-path, parish-road and kirk-road, high-road and cross-road, he kens ilka foot of ground in Nithsdale.”

“Aye, ye might have said in braid Scotland, gudewife,” added the fiddler. “But gang your ways, Maggie, that’s the first wise word ye hae spoke the day. I wish it was dark night, and rain, and wind, for the gentleman’s sake, that I might show him there is whiles when ane had better want een than have them; for I am as true a guide by darkness as by daylight.”3

Internally as well pleased that my companion was not put to give me this last proof of his skill, I wrote a note with a pencil, desiring Samuel to bring my horses at midnight, when I thought my frolic would be wellnigh over, to the place to which the bearer should direct him, and I sent little Benjie with an apology to the worthy Quakers.

As we parted in different directions, the good woman said, “Oh, sir, if ye wad but ask Willie to tell ye ane of his tales to shorten the gate! He can speak like ony minister frae the pu’pit, and he might have been a minister himsell, but——”

“Haud your tongue, ye fule!” said Willie,—“But stay, Meg—gie me a kiss, ne maunna part in anger, neither.”—And thus our society separated.

1.     The original of this catch is to be found in Cowley’s witty comedy of The Guardian, the first edition. It does not exist in the second and revised edition, called The Cutter of Coleman Street.

CAPTAIN BLADE.Ha, ha, boys, another catch.
And all our men are very very merry,
And all our men were drinking.
CUTTER.One man of mine.
DOGREL.Two men of mine.
BLADE.Three men of mine.
CUTTER.And one man of mine.
OMNES.As we went by the way
We were drunk, drunk, damnably drunk,
And all our men were very very merry, &c.

Such are the words, which are somewhat altered and amplified in the text. The play was acted in presence of Charles II, then Prince of Wales, in 1641. The catch in the text has been happily set to music.     [back]

2.    Blind Rorie, a famous musician according to tradition.    [back]

3.    It is certain that in many cases the blind have, by constant exercise of their other organs, learned to overcome a defect which one would think incapable of being supplied. Every reader must remember the celebrated Blind Jack of Knaresborough, who lived by laying out roads.    [back]

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