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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Cheapening Fish; and the Village Post-Office
By Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)
 
From ‘The Antiquary’

MR. OLDBUCK led the way to the sands. Upon the links or downs close to them were seen four or five huts inhabited by fishers; whose boats, drawn high upon the beach, lent the odoriferous vapors of pitch melting under a burning sun, to contend with those of the offals of fish and other nuisances usually collected round Scottish cottages. Undisturbed by these complicated steams of abomination, a middle-aged woman, with a face which had defied a thousand storms, sat mending a net at the door of one of the cottages. A handkerchief close bound about her head, and a coat which had formerly been that of a man, gave her a masculine air, which was increased by her strength, uncommon stature, and harsh voice. “What are ye for the day, your Honor?” she said, or rather screamed, to Oldbuck: “caller haddocks and whitings, a bannock-fluke and a cock-padle.”  1
  “How much for the bannock-fluke and cock-padle?” demanded the Antiquary.  2
  “Four white shillings and saxpence,” answered the Naiad.  3
  “Four devils and six of their imps!” retorted the Antiquary: “do you think I am mad, Maggie?”  4
  “And div ye think,” rejoined the virago, setting her arms akimbo, “that my man and my sons are to gae to the sea in weather like yestreen and the day—sic a sea as it’s yet outby—and get naething for their fish, and be misca’d into the bargain, Monkbarns? It’s no fish ye’re buying—it’s men’s lives.”  5
  “Well, Maggie, I’ll bid you fair: I’ll bid you a shilling for the fluke and the cock-padle, or sixpence separately; and if all your fish are as well paid, I think your man, as you call him, and your sons, will make a good voyage.”  6
  “Deil gin their boat were knockit against the Bell-Rock rather! it wad be better, and the bonnier voyage o’ the twa. A shilling for thae twa bonnie fish! Od, that’s ane indeed!”  7
  “Well, well, you old beldam, carry your fish up to Monkbarns, and see what my sister will give you for them.”  8
  “Na, na, Monkbarns, deil a fit,—I’ll rather deal wi’ yoursell; for though you’re near enough, yet Miss Grizel has an unco close grip. I’ll gie ye them” (in a softened tone) “for three-and-saxpence.”  9
  “Eighteenpence, or nothing!”  10
  “Eighteenpence!!!” (in a loud tone of astonishment, which declined into a sort of rueful whine, when the dealer turned as if to walk away)—“Ye’ll no be for the fish then?”—then louder, as she saw him moving off—“I’ll gie ye them—and—and—and a half a dozen o’ partans to make the sauce, for three shillings and a dram.”  11
  “Half a crown then, Maggie, and a dram.”  12
  “Aweel, your Honor maun hae’t your ain gate, nae doubt; but a dram’s worth siller now—the distilleries is no working.”  13
  “And I hope they’ll never work again in my time,” said Oldbuck.  14
  “Ay, ay—it’s easy for your Honor and the like o’ you gentlefolks to say sae, that hae stouth and routh, and fire and fending, and meat and claith, and sit dry and canny by the fireside; but an ye wanted fire and meat, and dry claes, and were deeing o’ cauld, and had a sair heart,—whilk is warst ava,—wi’ just tippence in your pouch, wadna ye be glad to buy a dram wi’t, to be eilding and claes, and a supper and heart’s-ease into the bargain, till the morn’s morning?”  15
  “It’s even too true an apology, Maggie. Is your goodman off to sea this morning after his exertions last night?”  16
  “In troth is he, Monkbarns; he was awa this morning by four o’clock, when the sea was working like barm wi’ yestreen’s wind, and our bit coble dancing in ’t like a cork.”  17
  “Well, he’s an industrious fellow. Carry the fish up to Monkbarns.”  18
  “That I will—or I’ll send little Jenny: she’ll rin faster;—but I’ll ca’ on Miss Grizzy for the dram mysell, and say ye sent me.”  19
  A nondescript animal, which might have passed for a mermaid as it was paddling in a pool among the rocks, was summoned ashore by the shrill screams of its dam; and having been made decent, as her mother called it,—which was performed by adding a short red cloak to a petticoat, which was at first her sole covering, and which reached scantily below her knee,—the child was dismissed with the fish in a basket, and a request on the part of Monkbarns that they might be prepared for dinner. “It would have been long,” said Oldbuck, with much self-complacency, “ere my womankind could have made such a reasonable bargain with that old skinflint; though they sometimes wrangle with her for an hour together under my study window, like three sea-gulls screaming and sputtering in a gale of wind. But come: wend we on our way to Knockwinnock.”…  20
  Leaving Mr. Oldbuck and his friend to enjoy their hard bargain of fish, we beg leave to transport the reader to the back parlor of the postmaster’s house at Fairport; where his wife, he himself being absent, was employed in assorting for delivery the letters which had come by the Edinburgh post. This is very often in country towns the period of the day when gossips find it particularly agreeable to call on the man or woman of letters; in order, from the outside of the epistles,—and if they are not belied, occasionally from the inside also,—to amuse themselves with gleaning information or forming conjectures about the correspondence and affairs of their neighbors. Two females of this description were, at the time we mention, assisting—or impeding—Mrs. Mailsetter in her official duty.  21
  “Eh, preserve us, sirs!” said the butcher’s wife, “there’s ten—eleven—twall letters to Tennant & Co. Thae folk do mair business than a’ the rest o’ the burgh.”  22
  “Ay; but see, lass,” answered the baker’s lady, “there’s twa o’ them faulded unco square, and sealed at the tae side,—I doubt there will be protested bills in them.”  23
  “Is there ony letters come yet for Jenny Caxon?” inquired the woman of joints and giblets: “the lieutenant’s been awa three weeks.”  24
  “Just ane on Tuesday was a week,” answered the dame of letters.  25
  “Was ’t a ship letter?” asked the Fornerina.  26
  “In troth was ’t.”  27
  “It wad be frae the lieutenant then,” replied the mistress of the rolls, somewhat disappointed: “I never thought he wad hae lookit ower his shouther after her.”  28
  “Od, here’s another,” quoth Mrs. Mailsetter. “A ship letter—postmark, Sunderland.” All rushed to seize it. “Na, na, leddies,” said Mrs. Mailsetter, interfering: “I hae had eneugh o’ that wark,—ken ye that Mr. Mailsetter got an unco rebuke frae the secretary at Edinburgh, for a complaint that was made about the letter of Aily Bisset’s that ye opened, Mrs. Shortcake?”  29
  “Me opened!” answered the spouse of the chief baker of Fairport: “ye ken yoursell, madam, it just cam open o’ free will in my hand. What could I help it?—folk suld seal wi’ better wax.”  30
  “Weel I wot that’s true, too,” said Mrs. Mailsetter, who kept a shop of small wares; “and we have got some that I can honestly recommend, if ye ken onybody wanting it. But the short and the lang o’t is, that we’ll lose the place gin there’s ony mair complaints o’ the kind.”  31
  “Hout, lass,—the provost will take care o’ that.”  32
  “Na, na, I’ll neither trust to provost nor bailie,” said the postmistress; “but I wad aye be obliging and neighborly, and I’m no again’ your looking at the outside of a letter neither: see, the seal has an anchor on ’t,—he’s done ’t wi’ ane o’ his buttons, I’m thinking.”  33
  “Show me! show me!” quoth the wives of the chief butcher and the chief baker; and threw themselves on the supposed love-letter, like the weird sisters in ‘Macbeth’ upon the pilot’s thumb, with curiosity as eager and scarcely less malignant. Mrs. Heukbane was a tall woman: she held the precious epistle up between her eyes and the window. Mrs. Shortcake, a little squat personage, strained and stood on tiptoe to have her share of the investigation.  34
  “Ay, it’s frae him, sure eneugh,” said the butcher’s lady: “I can read Richard Taffril on the corner, and it’s written, like John Thomson’s wallet, frae end to end.”  35
  “Haud it lower down, madam,” exclaimed Mrs. Shortcake, in a tone above the prudential whisper which their occupation required; “haud it lower down. Div ye think naebody can read hand o’ writ but yoursell?”  36
  “Whist, whist, sirs, for God’s sake!” said Mrs. Mailsetter: “there’s somebody in the shop;”—then aloud, “Look to the customers, Baby!” Baby answered from without in a shrill tone, “It’s naebody but Jenny Caxon, ma’am, to see if there’s ony letters to her.”  37
  “Tell her,” said the faithful postmistress, winking to her compeers, “to come back the morn at ten o’clock, and I’ll let her ken,—we havena had time to sort the mail letters yet; she’s aye in sic a hurry, as if her letters were o’ mair consequence than the best merchant’s o’ the town.”  38
  Poor Jenny, a girl of uncommon beauty and modesty, could only draw her cloak about her to hide the sigh of disappointment, and return meekly home to endure for another night the sickness of the heart occasioned by hope delayed.  39
  “There’s something about a needle and a pole,” said Mrs. Shortcake, to whom her taller rival in gossiping had at length yielded a peep at the subject of their curiosity.  40
  “Now, that’s downright shamefu’,” said Mrs. Heukbane: “to scorn the poor silly gait of a lassie after he’s keepit company wi’ her sae lang, and had his will o’ her, as I make nae doubt he has.”  41
  “It’s but ower muckle to be doubted,” echoed Mrs. Shortcake: “to cast up to her that her father’s a barber and has a pole at his door, and that she’s but a manty-maker hersell! Hout! fy for shame!”  42
  “Hout tout, leddies,” cried Mrs. Mailsetter, “ye’re clean wrang: it’s a line out o’ ane o’ his sailors’ sangs that I have heard him sing, about being true like the needle to the pole.”  43
  “Weel, weel, I wish it may be sae,” said the charitable Dame Heukbane; “but it disna look weel for a lassie like her to keep up a correspondence wi’ ane o’ the king’s officers.”  44
  “I’m no denying that,” said Mrs. Mailsetter; “but it’s a great advantage to the revenue of the post-office, thae love-letters. See, here’s five or six letters to Sir Arthur Wardour—maist o’ them sealed wi’ wafers, and no wi’ wax. There will be a downcome there, believe me.”  45
  “Ay; they will be business letters, and no frae ony o’ his grand friends, that seals wi’ their coats-of-arms, as they ca’ them,” said Mrs. Heukbane: “pride will hae a fa’; he hasna settled his account wi’ my gudeman, the deacon, for this twalmonth,—he’s but slink, I doubt.”  46
  “Nor wi’ huz for sax months,” echoed Mrs. Shortcake: “he’s but a brunt crust.”  47
  “There’s a letter,” interrupted the trusty postmistress, “from his son the captain, I’m thinking,—the seal has the same things wi’ the Knockwinnock carriage. He’ll be coming hame to see what he can save out o’ the fire.”  48
  The baronet thus dismissed, they took up the esquire. “Twa letters for Monkbarns;—they’re frae some o’ his learned friends now: see sae close as they’re written, down to the very seal,—and a’ to save sending a double letter; that’s just like Monkbarns himsell. When he gets a frank he fills it up exact to the weight of an unce, that a carvy-seed would sink the scale; but he’s ne’er a grain abune it. Weel I wot I wad be broken if I were to gie sic weight to the folk that come to buy our pepper and brimstone, and such-like sweetmeats.”  49
  “He’s a shabby body, the laird o’ Monkbarns,” said Mrs. Heukbane; “he’ll make as muckle about buying a forequarter o’ lamb in August as about a back sey o’ beef. Let’s taste another drop of the sinning” (perhaps she meant cinnamon) “waters, Mrs. Mailsetter, my dear. Ah, lasses! an ye had kend his brother as I did: mony a time he wad slip in to see me wi’ a brace o’ wild deukes in his pouch, when my first gudeman was awa at the Falkirk tryst; weel, weel—we’se no speak o’ that e’enow.”  50
  “I winna say ony ill o’ this Monkbarns,” said Mrs. Shortcake: “his brother ne’er brought me ony wild deukes, and this is a douce honest man; we serve the family wi’ bread, and he settles wi’ huz ilka week,—only he was in an unco kippage when we sent him a book instead o’ the nick-sticks, whilk, he said, were the true ancient way o’ counting between tradesmen and customers; and sae they are, nae doubt.”  51
  “But look here, lasses,” interrupted Mailsetter, “here’s a sight for sair e’en! What wad ye gie to ken what’s in the inside o’ this letter? This is new corn,—I haena seen the like o’ this: For William Lovel, Esquire, at Mrs. Hadoway’s, High Street, Fairport, by Edinburgh, N. B. This is just the second letter he has had since he was here.”  52
  “Lord’s sake, let’s see, lass! Lord’s sake, let’s see!—That’s him that the hale town kens naething about—and a weel-fa’ard lad he is: let’s see, let’s see!” Thus ejaculated the two worthy representatives of Mother Eve.  53
  “Na, na, sirs,” exclaimed Mrs. Mailsetter: “haud awa—bide aff, I tell you; this is nane o’ your fourpenny cuts that we might make up the value to the post-office amang ourselves if ony mischance befell it; the postage is five-and-twenty shillings—and here’s an order frae the Secretary to forward it to the young gentleman by express, if he’s no at hame. Na, na, sirs, bide aff: this maunna be roughly guided.”  54
  “But just let’s look at the outside o’t, woman.”  55
  Nothing could be gathered from the outside, except remarks on the various properties which philosophers ascribe to matter,—length, breadth, depth, and weight. The packet was composed of strong thick paper, imperviable by the curious eyes of the gossips, though they stared as if they would burst from their sockets. The seal was a deep and well-cut impression of arms, which defied all tampering.  56
  “’Od, lass,” said Mrs. Shortcake, weighing it in her hand, and wishing doubtless that the too, too solid wax would melt and dissolve itself, “I wad like to ken what’s in the inside o’ this; for that Lovel dings a’ that ever set foot on the plainstanes o’ Fairport,—naebody kens what to make o’ him.”  57
  “Weel, weel, leddies,” said the postmistress, “we’se sit down and crack about,—Baby, bring ben the tea-water; muckle obliged to ye for your cookies, Mrs. Shortcake,—and we’ll steek the shop, and cry ben Baby, and take a hand at the cartes till the gudeman comes hame; and then we’ll try your braw veal sweetbread that ye were so kind as send me, Mrs. Heukbane.”  58
  “But winna ye first send awa Mr. Lovel’s letter?” said Mrs. Heukbane.  59
  “Troth I kenna wha to send wi’t till the gudeman comes hame, for auld Caxon tell’d me that Mr. Lovel stays a’ the day at Monkbarns;—he’s in a high fever wi’ pu’ing the laird and Sir Arthur out o’ sea.”  60
  “Silly auld doited carles!” said Mrs. Shortcake: “what gar’d them gang to the douking in a night like yestreen?”  61
  “I was gi’en to understand it was auld Edie that saved them,” said Mrs. Heukbane,—“Edie Ochiltree, the Blue-Gown, ye ken; and that he pu’d the hale three out of the auld fish-pound, for Monkbarns had threepit on them ta gang in till ’t to see the wark o’ the monks lang syne.”  62
  “Hout, lass, nonsense!” answered the postmistress: “I’ll tell ye a’ about it, as Caxon tell’d it to me. Ye see, Sir Arthur and Miss Wardour, and Mr. Lovel, suld hae dined at Monkbarns—”  63
  “But, Mrs. Mailsetter,” again interrupted Mrs. Heukbane, “will ye no be for sending awa this letter by express?—there’s our powny and our callant hae gane express for the office or now, and the powny hasna gane abune thirty mile the day; Jock was sorting him up as I came ower by.”  64
  “Why, Mrs. Heukbane,” said the woman of letters, pursing up her mouth, “ye ken my gudeman likes to ride the expresses himsell: we maun gie our ain fish-guts to our ain sea-maws,—it’s a red half-guinea to him every time he munts his mear; and I daresay hell be in sune—or I dare to say, it’s the same thing whether the gentleman gets the express this night or early next morning.”  65
  “Only that Mr. Lovel will be in town before the express gaes aff,” said Mrs. Heukbane; “and where are ye then, lass? But ye ken yere ain ways best.”  66
  “Weel, weel, Mrs. Heukbane,” answered Mrs. Mailsetter, a little out of humor, and even out of countenance, “I am sure I am never against being neighbor-like, and living and letting live, as they say; and since I hae been sic a fule as to show you the post-office order—ou, nae doubt, it maun be obeyed. But I’ll no need your callant, mony thanks to ye: I’ll send little Davie on your powny, and that will be just five-and-threepence to ilka ane o’ us, ye ken.”  67
  “Davie! the Lord help ye, the bairn’s no ten year auld; and to be plain wi’ ye, our powny reists a bit, and it’s dooms sweer to the road, and naebody can manage him but our Jock.”  68
  “I’m sorry for that,” answered the postmistress gravely: “it’s like we maun wait then till the gudeman comes hame, after a’; for I wadna like to be responsible in trusting the letter to sic a callant as Jock,—our Davie belangs in a manner to the office.”  69
  “Aweel, aweel, Mrs. Mailsetter, I see what ye wad be at; but an ye like to risk the bairn, I’ll risk the beast.”  70
  Orders were accordingly given. The unwilling pony was brought out of his bed of straw, and again equipped for service. Davie (a leathern post-bag strapped across his shoulders) was perched upon the saddle, with a tear in his eye and a switch in his hand. Jock good-naturedly led the animal out of town, and by the crack of his whip, and the whoop and halloo of his too well known voice, compelled it to take the road toward Monkbarns.  71
  Meanwhile the gossips, like the sibyls after consulting their leaves, arranged and combined the information of the evening; which flew next morning through a hundred channels, and in a hundred varieties, through the world of Fairport. Many, strange, and inconsistent were the rumors to which their communication and conjectures gave rise. Some said Tennant & Co. were broken, and that all their bills had come back protested; others that they had got a great contract from government, and letters from the principal merchants at Glasgow desiring to have shares upon a premium. One report stated that Lieutenant Taffril had acknowledged a private marriage with Jenny Caxon; another, that he had sent her a letter upbraiding her with the lowness of her birth and education, and bidding her an eternal adieu. It was generally rumored that Sir Arthur Wardour’s affairs had fallen into irretrievable confusion; and this report was only doubted by the wise because it was traced to Mrs. Mailsetter’s shop,—a source more famous for the circulation of news than for their accuracy.  72
 
 
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