Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/A border wooing

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


I had spent some very pleasant time at the Shaws' Hotel, Gilsland, famous in the north country for the virtues of its mineral spring, as well as for the romantic beauty of its wooded and precipitous banks, which overhang the waters of the river Irthing. But it was not as a votary of Esculapius that I had bent my steps, or rather, taken my second-class ticket by the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, to this temple of the northern Hygieia; the attraction being, indeed, the Roman station of Amboglanna, at Birdoswald, the finest upon the whole line of the justly celebrated Roman wall which traverses the isthmus that stretches across Northumberland and Cumberland, between the German Ocean on the east, and the Solway Firth on the opposite hand.

Having tarried long enough at my pleasant quarters at the Shaws, to make drawings of every portion of this noble relic; having, I say, completed my task at Amboglanna, I fell, according to my wont, under the influence of the erratic spirit which has ever governed my roving life; and after some little cogitation, I resolved that the next stage of my pilgrimage should be the out-of-the-way nook on the edge of the debatable land be tween England and Scotland, where Bewcastle, famous for its Runic cross, and the ancient stronghold of the Bueths, De Vallibus, Swenbacnes, and Grahames, is situated. Accordingly, having paid my foy, or parting glass, to my friends and comrades at the Shaws, I strapped on my knapsack, and with many kindly farewells, followed up by a hearty cheer from the whole of the male part of the company, I wended my way, a free rover, once more.

By the road my route ought to have covered not more than ten miles, but as I was desirous of taking up the Roman road called the Maiden Way, I took to tho moors soon after leaving a small change-house, where I stopped for the common refreshment of oat-cake and peg-cheese, with a little whisky, well diluted with spring water, cool as if iced. This I have always found a good walking staff in the absence of churn-milk, a most refreshing beverage; next to which I would rank cold tea, naked, and without milk or sugar.[1]

Thus reinvigorated, I wended stoutly on my way, and leaving the road presently struck the Maiden Way, which here traverses the country to Bewcastle.[2] It is a broad road, showing in some parts quite distinctly for miles, in others concealed by heather and moss flows; it is well paved, with a compactly laid kerb on its borders. This lone track I pursued to a considerable length without seeing any living thing, except now and then a pack of muir-fowl, or a blackcock exhibiting his grotesque antics before an admiring bevy of grey hens. After a time the way became broken and confused among the undulations of the moorland, and after many times losing it and again taking it up, it became entirely swallowed up in a wide peat moss, on which I had to leap from hag to hag over black treacherous-looking pools, suggestive of the water-kelpie lurking below to snatch the unwary traveller to the sullen depths of his darksome abode. The sun was now getting low on the horizon, and I became very dubious of my way, all around being a dreary and darkening waste, where only the wild querulous scream of the curlew, or the deep guttural cry of the solitary bittern, could be heard, and my situation began to assume a critical aspect. However, there was nothing for it but to push on, which I did, with perspiration pouring from my brow, so as frequently to obscure my view. As there now appeared a rising ground a little way ahead, I made for it in a straight line, taking, under the spur of necessity, some extraordinary leaps over the gaping wells which obstructed my progress; until, completely exhausted, I passed the boundary of this dreary swamp, and sunk panting and breathless on the welcome hill-side.

After having rested for some quarter-of-an-hour, I made my way up the hill, and, looking down, saw, just below, the antique church and the famous Runic column standing among the mossy graves of centuries, where long had mouldered many a rieving Armstrong, many a lang-nebbit Elliot, and muckel-mon'd Scott; and where the wrath of many a fiery Fenwicke had long, long been quenched in dust and ashes, the whole transmuted into gold by the alchemy of the setting sun's last gleam, the dark mass of the castle glooming at the back. The Parsonage, and, below, the steep knoll on which the churchyard is situated on the opposite side of the stream called White Lyne, which is here crossed by a rustic bridge; the six cottages, and small change-house, which constitute the village, formed a picture quaint, old-world-like and secluded, such as our great master of landscape, Turner, would have delighted to look upon and depict; or "The genius that dwelt on the banks of the Tyne," my old friend and monitor, Thomas Bewick, would have compressed, with all its particulars, into a tail-piece of some two inches and a half of space. While gazing, absorbed in the enchanting influence of the view, the light gradually died away, and a bleak pallid hue gathered over the scene as the full moon gradually rose over the dark and shattered outline of the castle walls. I now looked about me for the shortest way to the small change-house at the foot of the hill on which I stood, where I proposed to rest for the night, well disposed thereto as I was after my rugged journey of some eighteen miles, when I was joined by a very comely peasant woman, who was going that way and undertook to be my guide. She presently took me into her confidence, and unfolded to me all her simple affairs and interests, the name and employment of her gude-man, and the number of her weans, with full particulars of sex, name, and age, all detailed with a simplicity and trustfulness, in the sweet Cumbrian tongue—for she did not originally spring on this border land, where the dialect is harsh and scarcely intelligible—that had a charm quite Wordsworthian. Arrived at the change-house, which was lit up by the fire of the smithy opposite, where the jolly hammerer was singing lustily to the bass accompaniment of his bellows, I entered, and to my dismay, tired as I was, I found the place contained only a but and a ben,[3] and but one bed, in a recess of the wall, which accommodated the hostess and her grand-daughter, wee Girzie, a golden-haired, round eyed lassie, who stared, half in fear and half in admiration, at the way-worn stranger bending under the weight of his knapsack. Finding there was no chance of a bed, I inquired if I could rest awhile and have some tea?

"Na, they had nae tea, nobut[4] whisky and barley scones, an a soup sma yill, unco sour; but there was a road-side public by the sign of the Risin' Sun, kept by ane Jock Armstrang, an honest man, considering he's a horse-couper, foreby, about a mile and a bittock nearer the Scotch border; I might mebbee get a pittin-up there." With this assurance I again took my way forth in the moonlight, over the little rustic bridge and along the bank of the White Lyne, which shone silvery bright under the moon, until, coming to another small bridge, by which, according to mine hostess's direction, I again crossed the water, past a water-mill, from whence issued a warm light that told of home and its comforts, sending a thrill to the heart of the travel-worn pilgrim. The way now led by the edge of a wood, which, intercepting the moonlight, left it in pitchy darkness; but groping on with protruded staff, a small glimmer of light became visible, like a star in the gloom, and in time I came up to the Rising Sun, where I knocked loud and long, before the latch was lifted, and I was confronted by a somewhat morose-looking woman and a young girl, whose staring black eyes and straggling elf locks gave her a peculiarly wild and striking appearance.

"What's your wull, canny man?" the elder dame inquired, keeping the door ajar.

I explained my requirements; but she seemed scarcely to comprehend my language.

"I dinna ken," she replied," I dinna ken. This is a lone house, and the gude-man's awa' at Newcastleton fair; an we're shy o' strangers. Ye'll na belong to thir pairts, an we tak in nae tramps."

"My good woman," I remonstrated, "I am no tramp, but travelling for my pleasure. My first visit to-morrow will be to your minister, who will assure you of my respectability."

"Aye, aye, aiblins, aiblins," she muttered; "but that punco like a pack on the shouthers of ye,—awm dooting, freen, ye'll just hae to tak the road again."

I now inquired if she expected the good man home that night?

"Aye, aye, the men folk wad be here sune, and I might just hirple into the chimney neuk, and she'd hear what they said til't."

Glad enough was I to obtain entrance on any terms, and having relieved my aching shoulders of my knapsack, I disposed myself on the lang settle[5] beside a large turf fire; and perceiving that my appearance in repose, having laid aside my hat, seemed to be held somewhat more satisfactory, I ventured to inquire if I might have tea, and anything they might have at hand—eggs, or what not? "Maggie," said mine hostess, "can ye make oot what the strange mon says?"

"Au dinna ken," responded Maggie.

Another essay towards an elucidation of my wants, at the same time pointing to the teapot on the dresser, "Awm thinkin he'll just be for wantin' the tae-watter and eggs," quoth the more intelligent damsel. And those viands, together with a goodly rasher, or, as it is called in those parts, collop of bacon, were presently set before me, and I fell to with the hearty appetite of a pedestrian; and having partaken of an abundant repast, I put a coal to the cutty of contentment, and enjoyed the luxury of repose after my somewhat toilsome day.

After a while, the clattering of hoofs on the stone pavement outside announced an arrival, and at a whistle from without mine hostess undid the door, and three men entered, wrapped up in long horsemen's coats. The apathetic hostess offered no kind of greeting, but went at once to the flitch of bacon and cut a quantity of huge collops, which the energetic Maggie soon had hissing and brawling in the frying-pan. Meanwhile one of the men, who turned out to be mine host, brought in a jar, or grey-hen, of whisky, which he set on a circular table; and he and his two companions having taken off their wraprascals, and stamped upon the sanded floor to reanimate their feet after the ride, sat down and took each a caulker, the landlord motioning me to do the same, which to have declined would, I knew, have amounted to Border treason. But it was not until "the sacred rage of hunger" had been fully appeased, that a word was spoken by either party.

The meal consisted of the aforesaid collops, and a quantity of potatoes boiled in their coats, with cheese (the accompaniment to every Cumbrian meal), and bread made from a mixture of pease meal and barley. When this banquet had been bolted, rather than eaten, the men drew round the fire (the table, which the hostess speedily cleared of the fragments of the meal, being placed, with the grey-hen, within convenient reach of all), and the well-blackened pipes were drawn out, filled, and lighted by thrusting them among the burning turf.

It was now that, for the first time, I engaged the notice of these worthies; and the host saluted me in words which, though a Border man myself, I could only with difficulty make sense of, enjoining me not to spare the grey-hen, and inquiring what road I travelled. While replying, another whistle was heard at the door; and Maggie ushered in a man, younger than the others, wearing a grey plaid, and apparently a shepherd. He was accompanied by a colley dog,[6] which, after a few preliminary snarls, made the customary gyration, turning round three times, and then stretched himself down along with three others which already occupied the hearth. The last comer tossed off a caulker, brought himself into "neebor raw" as invited, and betook himself to the pipe, while the landlord addressed him to the following purport:

"AahowsaawyeaabutIsemaingladtoseeyedyewant any gimmers coomben coomben pull in the langsettle­aabuta'smain­gladtoseeye­dyewantany­lambs?"

This intelligible speech was responded to by another equally lucid:

"Noonooadinnawantanylambs but mebbies­awant­til­sellsome­here­gude­wife­help­us­off­wi­ma­spatterdashes­for­theyre­uncomucky."

Which speeches may be rendered into the more plain form of the Border tongue, thus:

"Eh! how's a' wi' ye? Eh! but I'se main glad to see ye. D'ye want any gimmers? Come ben, come ben,[7] pull in the lang settle. Eh! but aw's main glad to see ye. D'ye want any lambs?"

"Na, na, aw dinna want any lambs, but maybe aw want to sell some. Here, gude wife, help us off wi' ma leggins, for they're unco' clarty."[8]

Not greatly interested in this kind of dialogue, being tired and drowsy, I was meditating a further appeal to the hostess's hospitality with reference to some kind of sleeping accommodation—being resolved, in the absence of better means, to stretch myself for the night on the long settle—when a most uncouth and singular figure slouched across the floor, though whence it came I could not devise, for it seemed to have arisen from the sanded flag-stones of the kitchen floor. It was a shambling, slouching creature, with starting, bloodshot eyes, and twisted neck, the chin drooping upon the chest, and hands that worked and clutched like the hands of a drowning man, as he worked his way towards the grey-hen. His advent was hailed with shouts and laughter.

"Odds, here cooms auld Maartie! Hoy, auld ghaist, wake up an' hev a pull o' the grey-hen; say awa',[9] auld Maartie; steady, now, steady, auld cheat-the-woodie! Haribee hills! miles awa! Eh! there it goes doon his gizzern. My certes, whaten a willeywaugh! Now settle thee doon, auld black sheep! an' gie's thy cracks."[10]

To all this the strange being only responded with a sort of chuckling guttural rattle in the throat, as he planted himself on the settle, and began fumbling at some pigtail tobacco to fill his pipe.

"Ye maun ken, sir," said the shepherd, in reply to my wondering look, "ye maun ken, that auld Maartie myad a mistake about a coow—kind o' lifted her; an' he was taken up afore Sir James, an' committed to Caarle gaol; an' they e'en sentenced him to be hangit on a tow on Haribee hill. Aw went, in coorse, to see auld Maartie dance at the woodie;[11] an' sae did Jock Heslop an' some ithers, just to see fair play like; but, sauve us, sir, he gat nae fair play ava. Gin a Border man be fairly streeckit at the woodie, nouther him nor anybody else can hae ony reason to complain, ye ken; for it's like natural death ti a Border man ti dree the woodie. But, ye see, Maartie didna get nae fair play ava; for hangie[12] e'en boggled with the rape, an' contrived sae badly that whan he loupit frae the cairt tail, the knot e'en slippit anunder the chin o' him; an' then he raxed and couldna settle til hang canny nor coomfortable ava; for ye maun ken he was born i' the silly how,[13] was Maartie, an' that gars ane unco kittle owther to hang or droon; till i' the lang run, the rape brack, and doon he came wi' a cloor to the grun'. Aweel, sir, our birse was a bit raised, because, ye see, he hadna gotten fair play; sae the lads an' me made in wi' our bits o' rungs, an' 'nounted the hows o' the puir auld doited constable bodies till they war fain to loup Rab Morris's fling; an' we weised Maartie ontil a spare powny, an ow'r the Border wi' him het foot; an' when we gat him safely housed, we gied him a canny soop o' the grey-hen, and he was sune hissel' agean; forbye, as ye'll obsaarve, be gat a bit twist o' the craig; an' he's been gay an' roupy in the thropple o' him sin' syne; forbie that his eyne tuik an unco' gleg an' uncanny glower. But ne'er fash,[14] auld Maartie, ma mon; thou'lt live ti get fair play, an' croon thy death verse on Haribee hill wi' the brawest o' them. Teak anither soop o' the grey-hen, auld corbie, and ne'er cry craven."

The ancient Martin during this recital sat rolling his head, and chuckling, as if at the narration of something vastly pleasant and facetious, and joined in the general laugh which ensued with such a mixture of guggles and eldrich shrieks as were absolutely astounding to ears unaccustomed to his peculiarities.

For my own part, I easily perceived this to be a little fiction which the narrator was pleased to palm upon my presumed inexperience, but I refrained from the expression of any misgivings on a point so delicate as Border death from natural causes; and I presently edged up to the taciturn hostess, who having consulted in a few whispered words with the good-man, said, "Aweel, au could hae a bed," and lit a rushlight, and ushered me into a room at the end of a long passage, on the first story of the house. Too weary to notice the appearance of my dormitory, I was soon huddled in among the blankets, and sound asleep. But it was not written in the book of my destiny that my rest should be uninterrupted; I know not how long I had slept, when I was aroused with a violent start, and rising up in bed, I became aware of a heavy tramping which seemed directly under the floor of my chamber, accompanied by a rattling and clanging of chains, suggesting the notion to my faculties, dazed as they were by being startled from heavy and profound slumber, that mine host must have some forlorn captive in the chamber below, who was bumping his head against the wall of his solitary dungeon, and clattering his chains in accompaniment to this desperate action. Immediately upon this there arose sundry frightful cries of murder, with guggles, and smothered cries, groans and panting sobs, like the utterance of some unhappy wight being at once strangled and having his throat cut. At length all this uproar subsided, and was succeeded by a frequent scuffling noise, and opening and shutting of doors, which went on from time to time, till, overcome by drowsiness, I again slept heavily. But I was destined to further disturbance. Again I was roused, this time by a crash against the window of my chamber; heavy rain was driving in sheets against the house, and the night was pitch dark. I concluded that the dash of rain against the panes must have awakened me, or perhaps the bough of a tree, swayed by the wind, might have struck the window. As I lay and listened to the sound of the storm, and the wild whooping of an owl that appeared to have taken refuge on the window-sill, I again dozed off, only, however, to be re-awakened by another crash louder than before. I immediately sprung up, and opening the casement, thrust forth my head as far as I could maintain my balance, and called out, "Who is there? Who and what are you, and what do you want? Speak, speak, or I'll fire, whom or whatever you be!" And while thus engaged I look far into the night, but so dark was it that I seemed to be built in by a wall of solid blackness. My conjurations brought no response, and I called again repeatedly, until at length there arose a most abominable howling and mowing, as if in mockery of my vociferation. I repeated my interrogation, and at last a voice from the darkness replied with, "Gae yer ways ti bed, there's naebody wantin' ye." So having this gracious permission, and as I was shivering with cold, I groped round the room until I recovered my couch, and again turned in; and being now fully aroused, lay wondering what this nocturnal visitation might portend. There now commenced a series of knocking and shaking of window-shutters, of which all my cogitations could not furnish a solution. I could not suppose those noises to proceed from a burglar, for had anyone intended breaking into the premises, he would scarcely have announced that intention by rousing the household with such a variety of unnecessary noises. These disturbances had continued, so far as I could guess, for about two hours, when there came another crash against my window-panes, and the voice cried, "Eh, Maggie—Maggie, ma woman, are ye waukin'?" I now began to smell a rat. In short, this was neither more nor less than a Cumberland courtship; for it is by no means uncommon for a young spinster to admit her enamoured swain after the family have retired for the night, and give him an opportunity of furthering his tender suit before the kitchen fire, which is never allowed to go out, but is packed with the gathering coal, and well happed[15] on the top with damp peat.

Our swain now became vocal, and in the changes of the wind I could catch snatches of a rude serenade, running, or rather limping, somewhat as follows:

Oh! are ye sleeping, Maggie?
Oh! are ye sleeping, Maggie?
Loud's the linn the weary din
That's roaring o'er the warlock craigie.

The rain is fa'in heavy, Maggie,
The night is moonless, dark, and dreary;
The wind is blawing stour, Maggie,
The cry o' howlet maks me eerie.

The lassie leugh ti hear his sang,
An' smoor'd amang the blankets nearly,
But couldna gar him linger lang,
For, oh! she loo'd the laddie dearly.

Then up she rose an' let him in,
Aside he flung his drookit plaidie.
What care I for mirk an' din,
Now a'm wi' my bonny leddy?

From this he changed to the following strain, of a somewhat more melancholy cast than the above:

Lassie, but I'm weary, weary,
Lassie, but the night is eirey,
Let me in, an' a'll na' steir ye,
Let me in, my ain, ain dearie.

Gin I war at thine ingle neuk,
An' we twa war at our daffin',
I'd swear upon the printed beuk,
To be thy man for a' their laughin'.

Ca' me in, ma bonny woman,
Ca' me in, ma lassie kind,

An' a'll change ma state wi' nae man,
Happy i' contented mind.

Ca' me in, ma ain kind dearie,
For, oh! the night is lour an' dreary,
An wi' thy smile sae bright an' cheery,
Warm this heart that's cauld an' weary.

Ca' me in, ma denty dearie,
Ca' me in, an' steek the yett,
For 'tis heaven to be neare thee:
Ca' me in, my ain kind pet.

But Maggie, in the present instance, continued unmoved; whether, however, she relented at length, I am not in a condition to say,[16] for I fell into a sound sleep, and only woke about seven in the morning, the sun shining brightly in at the window, birds singing, and all nature wearing a bright and joyous aspect; in strong contrast to the darkness and disorder of the preceding night. I was soon up, and after a plentiful application of cold water, dressed quickly, and went forth to reconnoitre.

At the back of the house I found mine host, who invited me to view a fine horse he had brought from Newcastleton the preceding night; and led me accordingly to the stable below, where I was introduced to a great black stallion, which I at once perceived must have been the stamper and chain-clanker of last night. But I was still puzzled how to account for the hideous outcries which had accompanied these demonstrations, and appealed to the landlord for an explanation.

"Lor bless ye!" he replied, "that wad just be naebody but auld Maartie ye heard, gullerin' an scumfishin' in's sleep. Od, man, but it's an ugsome thing to hear til him at unco times, and to see him feghtin', and warstlin', an thrawin', wi' the een of him just startin' oot o' him. He hasna forgottin' Haribee Hill, I'se warrant ye."

This latter observation was accompanied by a roguish leer and a chuckle, as if my landlord enjoyed the remembrance of the little farce that had been played off upon me on the night previous; and this demonstration was echoed by the series of guggles, gasps, and wheezing, which constituted the ostler Martin's peculiar style of joculation, from a dark corner of the stable, where that ancient retainer of the "Rising Sun" was smoking the pipe of repose.

And now the buxom Maggie appeared to inform me that my breakfast waited, and I was conducted into a little room apart from the kitchen, and there I found an abundance of collops, eggs, and tea; Maggie only remaining to express her regret that they were quite out of vinegar to sauce the bacon, but there was a goudy peg-cheese and some barley-meal bannocks. However, as I did not deem vinegar an indispensable accessory to fried bacon, I made a hearty meal, and presently found myself in condition for a rough ride, the chase of the long-legged hill fox, digging out a badger, spearing an otter, or any rude border sport which circumstances might suggest.

J. Wykeham Archer.

  1. In reference to this beverage, I have been told by a keen sportsman that nothing sustained him so well, and its only fault lay in the artificial stimulus it imparted to muscular energy, which was liable to induce undue exertion. This property is probably due to the amount of azote and tannin contained in tea.
  2. The road called the Maiden Way branches from the Roman road at Kirby-Thore, passes between Cross Fell on the right, and Kirkland on the left. It is seen in the east part of Ousby, in Malmerby and Addingham parishes. In some parts it is eighteen feet in breadth. It crosses Blackburn, and running within about two miles of Aldston, enters Northumberland, bearing for Whitley Castle, a Roman station; thence to Caervoran, passes the Roman Wall at Dead Water, and re-enters Cumberland, and proceeds to the station at Newcastle, which it leaves a little to the left; then under the name of Wheel Causeway, proceeds to Kirksop, and into Scotland at Lamyford. Here it crosses the Catrail, and is supposed to join Watling Street near the Roman station Ad Fines. This, which was originally a British road, appears to have been adopted by the Romans for a military way. The name, Maiden Way, is derived by Wharton from the Celtic word, Madan-Fair, probably made or constructed.
  3. An outer and inner apartment.
  4. Nothing but.
  5. A wooden bench.
  6. Sheep dog.
  7. Further in.
  8. Soiled with mire.
  9. To take say, or assay, of the liquor. It was the custom in the olden time for the mayor and corporation of Newcastle to go the round of the public-houses, in order to take assay of the ale, and ascertain if Boniface had provided a good and wholesome beverage for his guests.
  10. Chat.
  11. Gallows.
  12. The executioner.
  13. Born with the head enveloped in a caul.
  14. Trouble.
  15. Covered up.
  16. I charged Maggie in the morning with this midnight flirtation, but she indignantly disowned having "changed words with the unsonsy gomeril. Some gowk, she jaloused, that had getten mair drink nor gumption i' the head o' him, the gammerin' taed; and, like a sumph as he was, maun gae waukin' folk up i' that fashious way, an' the deil ding him, like Jock Wabster, for a puir doited couf, wi' his blathers an' rowtin', the fond blatherskate; if she wadna hae clawed the eyne out o' the ill-faured face a' him, deil be in her nieves, an' a plague tak' him for a tousy tike!" And Maggie, after this emphatic exordium, flung herself out of the room; and I could hear, by the yelping of some ill-starred colly, that she had uncorked the vials of her wrath at the expense of his unhappy hide.