Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Highland Better Half
By Susan Edmonstone Ferrier (1782–1854)
From ‘The Inheritance’

IN the course of her domiciliary visits, Gertrude found herself at the door of the cottage she had visited the memorable morning after her arrival at Rossville; and somewhat curious to know the state of affairs there, she was about to enter when at that moment Uncle Adam was descried approaching. They waited till he came up, and then invited him to join in the visit; which after a little humming and hawing he agreed to do.  1
  The door was hard-and-fast shut, but upon knocking it was banged open by our ci-devant friend the dame of the stoups, who immediately recognized and most cordially welcomed her former visitor.  2
  “Eh! my leddy, is this you? I ax your pardon, my leddy, but I really didna ken weel wha you was the first time you was here; just come foret, my leddy; jest stap in ower, sir; dinna be feared, my leddy; just gang in bye,” etc., etc., etc.; and carefully closing the door against the breath of heaven, she ushered her guests into the dark precincts of her foul-aired, smoky cabin. A press-bed, with a bit of blue checked stuff hanging down, denoted that the poor sufferer had now exchanged his seat by the fire for his bed, and the chair which he had formerly occupied stood with its back to the fire, covered with clothes apparently drying.  3
  “How does your husband do?” inquired Lady Rossville.  4
  “Oo, ’deed, my leddy, he’s just quite silly-wise,” responded the dame in a whining, melancholy key; “he just lies there snottering awa’,” pointing to the bed.  5
  “Is he confined to bed?” asked Mr. Lyndsay.  6
  “No—no, sir, he’s no confined ony ways, he gets up whiles; but ’deed it’s no aye convenient for me to ha’e him up; for as I tell him, what can he do when he is up? for he’s no fit to put his hand to onything; and he’s mair oot o’ the way there than he wad be ony place else.”  7
  “More out of the way of regaining health, certainly,” said Mr. Lyndsay.  8
  “Health, sir!” interrupted the hostess; “’deed he’ll ne’er ha’e health as lang as he lives; he’s just been draggle-dragglen on, these twunty month by Marti’mas; I’m sure I’ve had a weary time o’t wi’ him, and noo I canna get a hand’s turn maist done for him, the hoose an’ awthing’s just gawin’ to destruction; and I’m sure I really think shame o’ mysel’,” surveying two large dirty arms from top to toe; “an’ there’s the weans, puir things, gawin’ in perfect rags, for I ne’er can get a steek put in either to their duds or my ain.”  9
  Here the voice of the sick man was heard in a faint accent, calling the gudewife.  10
  “That’s just the way he gangs on, my leddy; he just lies there and yelps, yelps, yelps even on for me. What is’t noo?” in her loudest, sharpest key, as she banged up to the bed. “A drink? I wonder ye ha’e nae mair sense, man, than to ask for a drink the noo, when her leddyship’s here, an’ Maister Lyndsay an’ aw, speerin’ for you.”  11
  Mr. Lyndsay here took up a jug of water which was standing on the top of a chest by the bedside, and held it to the sick man’s lips; but the reproof was thrown away, or rather misconstrued by his soothing helpmate.  12
  “Oh, sir, I think shame o’ your takin’ sae muckle trouble, for he’s just like a bairn; he’s aye wantin’ something or anither, and he’s just lost aw discretion thegither. I wonder you dinna think shame o’ yoursel’,” to her husband, “when you see the fashery you mak’.”  13
  Mr. Lyndsay, meanwhile, having felt the invalid’s pulse, began to put a few queries to him touching his complaint.  14
  “Have you much thirst?” asked he.  15
  “Oh, sir, he wad drink the very ocean an let him.”  16
  “Pray let him speak for himself,” said Lyndsay, again putting the question to the patient, who seemed so unused to the privilege that he was evidently at a loss how to make use of it.  17
  “Have you any pain in your head?”  18
  “’Deed, sir, I dinna think he has muckle pain in his heed, though he compleens o’t whiles; but as I often tell him, I wiss he had my back. I’m sure I’ve a pain whiles atween my shouthers, sir—” rolling a huge, fat, strong-looking back as she spoke.  19
  “I shall attend to your pains some other time, if you will be so good as keep them quiet for the present,” said Lyndsay; then once more turning to the sick man, he asked whether he had pain or weakness in his limbs that prevented him from rising.  20
  “I’m sure I dinna ken what it is,” again interposed the incorrigible matron. “He canna be sair, I’m positive o’ that, for there’s naething like an income aboot him—oo no—no, no, sir; he’s aye keepit a hale skin, and that’s a great mercy. He’s very silly, to be sure, but that canna be helpit, ye ken.”  21
  “Do you never allow your husband to answer for himself?” asked Mr. Lyndsay, at a loss whether to laugh or be provoked at this intolerable woman.  22
  “Oo, sir, I’m sure he’s walcome to speak for me; but, ’tweel I dinna think he kens very weel what till say, or what it is that ails him. Tam,”—shouting into his ear,—“the leddy wants to hear an you can speak ony. Canna ye thank her for the braw claise and the siller she gied you?”  23
  “Should not you like to be up out of bed?” asked Gertrude, now trying her skill to extract an answer; but before he had time to reply his mouthpiece again took up the word.  24
  “Up, my leddy! ’Deed he just craik, craiks to be up, and than whan he’s up he craik, craiks to be doun; an’ it wad be very disconvenient for to ha’e him up the day, for you see,” pointing to the clothes that were spread over the chairs, “the fire’s aw tane up wi’ his dead-claise that I was gi’en an air to, for they had got unco dampish-wise wi’ the wat wather; an’ I’m thinkin’ he’ll no be lang o’ wantin’ them noo; and this is siccan a bonny day, I thought what atween the fire and the sun they wad be sure to get a gude toast.”  25
  Uncle Adam had hitherto practiced a degree of forbearance which had scarcely a parallel in his whole life and conversation; but indeed, from the moment the dame had first opened her lips he had felt that words would be weak weapons to have recourse to, and that nothing less than smiting could at all satisfy his outraged feelings. Luckily at this moment she was not within reach of his arm, otherwise it is to be feared his wrath would have vented itself not in thin air but in solid blows. As it was, he at length burst forth like a volcano, with—  26
  “Airing the honest man’s dead-claise when the breath’s in his body yet! Ye’re bauld to treat a living man as ye would a sweel’d corpse, and turn his very hoose into a kirk-yard! How daur ye set up your face to keep him frae his ain fireside for ony o’ your dead duds?”  27
  And snatching up the paraphernalia so ostentatiously displayed, he thrust the whole into the fire. “There, that’ll gie them a gude toast for you!” said he; and as they broke into a blaze he quitted the cabin.  28
  “Eh, sirs! the bonny claise that cost sae muckle siller!” sobbed the mistress in a hysterical tone, as she made an ineffectual effort to save them; “the ill-faur’d carle that he is, to tak’ upon him for to set low to ony honest man’s wundin’-sheet!”  29
  Lady Rossville was confounded; for as she but imperfectly comprehended the pith of the parley that had taken place, the action appeared to her,—as indeed it was,—perfectly outrageous, and her purse was instantly open to repair this breach of law and justice. But Lyndsay could scarcely keep from laughing at the tragi-comic scene that had just taken place. From his knowledge of the character and modes of thinking of the Scottish peasantry he was not at all surprised at the gudewife’s preparations; but while she was engrossed with her attempts to redeem some bits of the linen from the flames, he took the opportunity of carrying on his colloquy with the husband.  30
  “So I see your wife does not attempt to conceal from you the danger you are in,” said he.  31
  “Na, na,” said the invalid, perking up; “what for wad she do that? they wadna be a true freend that wad hide a man’s danger frae him; we’re aw ready enough to hide it frae oursel’s, and forget the care o’ our ain immortal sowls.”  32
  “You have seen your minister, then, I suppose?”  33
  “Oo ay, honest man! he ca’s in nows and thans, and muckle edification I get frae him;” then, calling to his dame, he began to comfort her for the loss she had sustained as though it had been her own holiday suit.  34
  “What a shocking woman!” exclaimed Gertrude, as they quitted the cottage; “how worse than unfeeling to have prepared her husband’s dead-clothes, and have them even displayed before his eyes in that manner!”  35
  “She certainly is not a favorable specimen of a Scotch gudewife,” answered Mr. Lyndsay; “but I have seen the most affectionate wife talk of the death of her husband, even while administering to his wants with the greatest solicitude: but they are much less sophisticated in their ideas upon these subjects than we are; they would think it highly wrong to use any deception at such a time.”  36
  “But how shocking to hear one’s death talked of as inevitable!”  37
  “But they do not talk of it in that manner; they believe that all things are possible with God. They send for the doctor as they do for the minister, and pray for a blessing on the means used; they leave all in the hand of God. I have seen many on their death-beds in various circumstances, and I have always found that they who were in the habit of hearing of death and eternity, of conversing with their ministers and religious people, have, generally speaking, looked forward to death with resignation and composure.”  38
  “I can indeed easily imagine,” said Lady Rossville, “that the poor man we have just left must look forward to heaven with great complacency, were it only to be rid of that tormenting creature, and out of that vile smoky cabin.”  39
  “A smoky house and a scolding wife have indeed always been looked upon as the ne plus ultra of human misery; but that is only amongst the rich. When you have seen more of the poor you will be satisfied there are still greater evils; you are still a novice in the miseries of life, Gertrude.”  40
  “Perhaps so, and yet”— She stopped and sighed, and they proceeded homeward in silence.  41

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