Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Jessie Cameron's bairn
JESSIE CAMERON’S BAIRN.
A TALE IN TWO CHAPTERS.
In a little secluded weaving village in the Lowlands of Scotland, far away from city influences, good and bad, lived the heroine of this true story;—an innocent young Scotch lassie, and a thrifty, with the natural roses of some nineteen summers blushing on her healthy cheeks. To quit the good old style of hyperbolical story-writing, she was a fair specimen of the unsophisticated village girl,—if anything, a shade more shrewd and womanly than most girls of her age and position. Healthily handsome, and with all the promise of a good substantial housewife, she did not fail to obtain some few suitors,—whose cannie Scotch heads were not, however, turned by her good looks. They made love to her as ordinary people eat bread and butter, making no fuss about it; but liking her as hard-working young men like hard-working young women who bid fair to become useful helpmates. Their love, if I may call it by that name, was hard matter-of-fact stuff, and they made no faces when they swallowed it without sugar; it was a sort of strengthening medicine which they were obliged to earn and pay for.
Jessie Cameron was the name of this good-looking young woman. She lived with her stepmother in one of those little thatched cottages of which so many sweet Auburns in England, Scotland, and Ireland are composed. Not a rich girl, but one who worked hard for her living. Her business in the house was to make the oatcake, milk the cow, and turn her handy fingers to household work in general. But over and above all this, she laboured at the loom. As I have observed, she fulfilled her duties with a sufficiency which gained her a good character among the marriageable young men of the neighbourhood. Mrs. Cameron, her stepmother, was a woman of rather less than thirty years of age, still handsome, and almost certain to marry again. She had married Jessie’s father, who had since died, when Jessie was a little girl of twelve; she had no children of her own. Her beauty—though that is far too strong a word for the fact—was of a very different order from that of her stepdaughter. While the latter was dark and tawny, Mrs. Cameron was fair-haired, sanguine-complexioned, and blue-eyed. But there was a black dreamy look in the blue eyes, and a heavy coarseness about the full red lips, which indicated a listless, morbid nature, tempered and heightened by an underlying sensuality. Still, in her own way, she was a busy bustling woman enough, and was respected and rather liked by her neighbours. Her blood was Scottish, though mingled with the blood of an Irishman, her grandfather. She had a sort of reputation for piety, being, like most of the people in those parts, a rigid member of the Free Kirk.
Opposite to the small cottage where these two women lived alone, stood the smithy, where the old blacksmith had laboured with his boy for years; a cheery, weather-beaten place, where cheery weather-beaten cronies met to have their daily cracks.
A change came over Jessie Cameron’s monotonous life. One fine summer day the smithy was closed to the cronies, and news soon circulated through the village that old Aleck Mackay the blacksmith had given up the ghost. The affair passed over without comment save from garrulous old women. But by and by came word that a new hand was soon to handle the big hammer and blow the big bellows in Aleck’s stead. John Macintyre (familiarly called Jock), a young fellow from a neighbouring village, was to be the new occupant. Jock sent a good name before him; he had the reputation of being a “weel-to-do-callan.” So the lassies began to brush up their best looks, in the hope of attracting his attention some Sunday, as they tripped toward their seats in the little church.
In course of time the new hand came, and the forge again flamed from morning to night opposite Mrs. Cameron’s cottage door. A fine young fellow, who stood some six feet high in his shoes, was seen toiling at the bellows, and flourishing the heavy hammer. A fair and honest Scotch face had Jock, and a strong arm, and a roguish eye; no wonder the girls began to set their caps at him. But Jessie Cameron had work to do, and found little time to gaze at the young fellow over the way. However, Jock the blacksmith was there, watching her with tender thoughts in his heart; for he was soft-hearted, and liked the girl’s face passing well.
This was how they first began to fraternise,—Jessie and Jock. Hostilities (excuse the expression) began in a nod and a smile from the latter, as he took down his shutters one morning; they were continued by the former, who answered the nod and the smile. The next morning the same mode of salutation was repeated; and so on, for a fortnight or so. At the end of that time the blacksmith was on speaking terms with Jessie and her stepmother. By and by, too, the girl found a corner in her little heart vacant, and Jock was installed there secretly, and with many tender wishes.
Jock had come to the village in early summer. By autumn time—when the haymaking was over and the reapers were out—he and the girl were as thoroughly in love with each other as young man and young woman can be. Many a sweet word, endorsed with sweet kisses, had passed between them, as they wandered together under the moon and stars. This nocturnal kind of wooing is customary in Scotch villages, and a lassie can stay out love-making till the “wee short hour ayont the twal’,” without losing her character. But the upshot is always expected to be a new house, a “tocher,” and a wedding-ring. So Jock and Jessie were soon recognised as acknowledged sweethearts, who meant to visit the minister, and help to populate the village at no very distant date.
“Jessie,” said Jock to that young woman one night, as they were about to take the parting kiss, “Jessie, I hae siller, some, and I hae gear. I’m thinking o’ makin’ a new house down by the auld ane—a braw new house, with hens and kye. Jessie” (and here he kissed her with a smack). “Jessie, will ye tak’ me wi’ a’ I hae, and be my ain wee wife?”
The proposal was at the least straightforward; but young fellows who mean business do not like rigmarole. Jessie blushed to the tips of her fingers, and trembled a little; but her heart was full, and she felt very proud and happy. She clung closer to her strong young lover, hanging down her head for a moment; till, as if by a sudden impulse, she lifted up her lips and kissed him fervently. Then she fluttered from his side with a light laugh. But Jock drew her back, as he whispered, smiling slyly:—
“Is it ay or no, Jessie?”
Jessie blushed a double crimson, and laughed.
“Ye ken best yoursel’, Jock,” she said.
“Is it ay?”
“Atweel, Jock,” said Jessie, still trying to escape, “I’ll speir at mither. Ye ken what that means. Gude nicht.”
“Gude nicht, Jessie,” quoth Jock, and he stalked off to his own home, the most coolly happy young fellow in Christendom.
That night Jessie laid a head full of busy thoughts on her quiet pillow, and cherished sweet feelings in her girl’s heart. She had experienced all the yearnings peculiar to young women. She had felt the indescribable yearning most girls feel,—to pass a career of uneventful happiness, a true wife and a happy mother.
And now, the man of her heart had promised these joys to her, and her humble wishes were realized. As to her stepmother, of course she would only be too proud to hear of the engagement. Jessie would break the good news to her in the morning, and get the matter off her mind. So she slept very peaceably.
Next morning she was up and stirring with the first lark, bustling about the house, and singing to herself with a light heart. Thank goodness, there was plenty of work to do, otherwise I do believe her happiness would have climbed to that pinnacle which suddenly turns liquid and topples over with tears. At breakfast time, she broke the tidings after the following fashion:—
“Mither,” she said, abruptly, “ye’ll no’ guess the gude news I hae to gie ye. It’s a’ settled, mither, and I’m gaun to marry Jock gin summer next!”
Had Jessie been a very acute observer, or had she been less absorbed in the contemplation of her new hopes, she would have seen Mrs. Cameron’s face turn paler than usual. The woman’s countenance regained its natural colour in a moment; but her lips quivered, her fingers fidgetted nervously with the table-cloth, and a fierce cat-like look darkened for a moment in her slumberous eyes. Her voice was unchanged, however, and she now spoke in the calm monotonous tones that were usual to her.
“Whatna Jock?” inquired Mrs. Cameron, after a moment’s pause.
“Wha would it be, mither, but Jock Macintyre, o’ the smiddy yonder. And, mither, he’s gaun to build a new house, and he’s weel-to-dae, and he says he’ll hae heaps o’ siller ane o’ these days.” And Jessie laughed happily, and began to hum the words of Willie Miller’s glorious song:—
Folks wha hae skill o’ the bumps on the head,
Hint there’s mair ways than toiling o’ winning ane’s bread;
How he’ll be a rich man and hae men to work for him,
Wi’ a kyte like a bailie’s, shug shugging before him;
Wi’ a face like the moon, sober sonsy, and douce,
And a back, for its breadth, like the side o’ a house!
And Jessie laughed, not at all indisposed to think of her husband in such prosperous circumstances. There is always a little spice of worldly economy, on both sides, in these country marriages. As I do not think that love can be supported without porridge and milk, I regard such a state of things in a favourable light. Pastorella with a crook, and Strephon with a cracked lute, are all very well in Arcadia and in Don Quixote’s imagination; but in real life, individuals so constituted for doing nothing would bring both themselves and their sheep to grief. I am sure that Jessie would have married Jock even had he been in less prosperous circumstances; but perhaps she would not have done so with so much confident alacrity. This in passing.
Jessie hummed the lines above quoted, and ended with another laugh. But Mrs. Cameron bit her lips to keep her vexation within bounds, as she said, sharply:
“The deil’s in the bairn, I’m thinking! Awa’ wi’ your douce dreams, Jessie. Ye’ll marry nae Jock till ye’re aulder and wiser. You’re owre young.”
Jessie started, surprised less by the words themselves than by the unusual tone in which they were uttered. She fixed her eyes inquiringly on her stepmother, who crimsoned to the temples.
“Owre young, mither! Ye hae said yoursel’—”
“I hae said naething o’ the sort, and I’m no’ gaun to gang demented and say it now.”
“Dinna ‘but’ me, but mind what I’m telling ye. Marry Jock if you please, but dinna blame me if ye repent o’t. Tak’ my warning, and hae naething to dae wi’ the minister till Jock’s richer and you’re aulder. Dinna gang the lang gait wi’ him. Mind that, bairn, or ye’ll repent o’t. Na, na! tell me nane o’ your nonsense; but be wise-like, and wait a wee. He’s as puir as Lazarus, in spite o’ a’ ye hae said.”
Jessie made no answer, but her heart throbbed quickly in her bosom, and her head began to swim. This outburst of her step-mother was beyond her simple comprehension. She left the house to look after the cow, trying hard to fathom the mystery. Outside the door she saw her lover, who was about to open business for the day. He nodded to her with a merry smile from the opposite side of the way, and she answered the greeting with as pleasant a look as possible. She passed round to the back of the cottage, keeping her tears down with an effort; but when fairly out of sight she began to weep bitterly. She grew calmer by and by, as she walked on in the fresh morning; and at last the tears ceased altogether, leaving a residuum of bitter determined thoughts.
“She’s no’ my ain mither, and she’s gaun clean daft” (thus ran the girl’s reflections). “I ken o’ naething that she’s done for me or mine; and I’m no’ bound to mak’ mysel’ miserable for her sake. What if she did marry my faither; that’s nae reason that she should undae my faither’s dochter. Na, na! I’ll no’ lose my lad by waiting and waiting for her bidding! Jock wants a wife, I ken, and maybe he might tak’ up wi’ another lass if I kept him on the wrang side. Na, na! mither. I’m auld enough to ken my ain gait without your bidding.”
As people are bound to think in the language in which they speak, I give the substance of Jessie’s thoughts in the Doric familiar to her tongue. Those thoughts were not in the strict spirit of ethics, perhaps; but they were very natural, for all that. Poor lassie! could she have seen a very little bit into the future, she would have changed her tactics. There was a demon in that dull-eyed step-mother of hers, which time and opportunity were to develop in all its quaint proportions.
The reader has probably guessed the truth. Mrs. Cameron was still a young and good-looking woman; and if her dull blood was moved to love anything or anybody—it was to love John Macintyre the blacksmith. She has practised all her arts on him—she had done all she could to catch his eye; but Jock never so much as dreamed of her in the character of a wife. He noticed none of her hints and advances; nor did Jessie. Perhaps he was blinded a little by the mere fact that she was Jessie’s mother; a fact which would unconsciously be suggestive of age and undemonstrative matronhood. This indifference had the effect of making the smouldering passion flash out in bitter anger and fierce sin. The dull-eyed woman was not beaten yet; and, if she herself could not marry him, had not the slightest intention of allowing Jessie to take her place.
When Jessie returned to the house, her face was very calm and pale, and her lips were tightly clenched. She was a Scotch girl, with a will of her own, and she had made up her mind to assert her right to the matrimonial goods she coveted. She found Mrs. Cameron quite calm and listless, as if nothing very important had occurred.
“Hae ye thought o’ my words, Jessie?” said the dull-eyed woman.
The girl faced about, and eyed the speaker with a look as calm as ice.
“Ay, woman!” she said firmly; “I hae thocht o’ your words, and they’re fause and wrangfu’ words: I’ll hae nae mair o’ them. You’re no’ my ain mither, and you’re no’ just in your clean senses. I’ll marry Jock Macintyre when he says the word, whether ye will it or no’. He’s the lad o’ my heart; I’ll no’ lose him. I hae said it, woman, and I’ll stand by it tho’ I dee!”
This, to say the least of it, was not respectful; but Jessie’s blood was up, and she could not mince the matter. Mrs. Cameron made a movement, as if she would have risen and struck the girl; but she conquered the impulse and relapsed into her old self. She repeated some of her former words quite coldly; but that was all. Thus the matter ended for the time being.
Jessie told Jock of this unaccountable whim of her step-mother; but he made light of it. It did not interfere with their plans, though the girl felt rather uneasy at breaking the filial law, and could not quite conquer her scruples by the sophism that Mrs. Cameron was her relation only by marriage. She was determined, however. The young lovers continued to meet as usual, and to talk of the future after lovers’ fashion. The dull-eyed woman, strange to say, never alluded to the subject again. She had quarrelled with the girl, indeed, and there was some talk of parting; but it came to nothing. They continued to live together. But clouds were gathering—gathering slowly—in the dull-eyed woman’s brain; the flash of the lightning was seen now and then in her still eyes; but the thunder and the rain were yet to come.
In desiring to break off or postpone the marriage, Mrs. Cameron was not influenced so much by her liking for Jock, as by a certain bad purpose which had lately got into her head, and which Jessie’s marriage with Jock, or anybody else, might frustrate. She kept this purpose carefully hidden under her quiet face, until necessity compelled her to execute it. For some months past (the better to ensure the success of her scheme) she had never once ventured out to the church, but had pleaded indisposition. The minister dropped in now and then to chat with and console her, for she was one of his most pious parishioners. She did very little of the household work, but sat most of the day in the big armchair, with her dull blue eyes fixed on the fire, hiding the projected sin. She was the better enabled to indulge herself, because her husband had left her a few pounds at his death.
The months rolled on; winter passed with his snows and gales, and was followed by the fair winds and soft rains of early spring. Jessie and Jock met once, sometimes twice a week—always by night—when the daily toil was over. But every evening that Jessie stole out from the little cottage, the dull-eyed woman threw a shawl over her head and followed, turning off in another direction when outside the door. Generally on her return home, her step-mother was fast asleep in bed; sometimes she sat in the arm-chair peevishly chiding the girl for staying out of doors so late.
One night Jessie stole out later than usual to meet her lover. The night was dark and warm, and the two young people strolled along the highway for more than a mile. Jock’s arm was round Jessie’s waist, and he was whispering soft words to her as they walked along. There were no stars out, and the moon was hid; light vapoury clouds were sailing swiftly across the sky, squadroned by a silent wind. The lovers could just see each other’s faces.
They were turning round a curve of the highway when they passed a woman and a man, the latter, who wore a gamekeeper’s coat, far gone in liquor. The woman’s face was hid in an old shawl; she shrank back into the darkness with a frightened air as the lovers walked by. The man staggered forward with an oath, and caught hold of Jessie’s arm with a rough grasp. Jock, when he had knocked the offender down, recognised him as the gamekeeper of a neighbouring landowner, Sir Hugh Mucklewraith. The lovers passed on amid a volley of coarse abuse from the fallen man. Jessie felt the least bit frightened; but strong Jock soon reassured her, and they were again absorbed in the old sweet theme.
On the following morning Mrs. Cameron’s face wore a strange scared look. The dull-eyed woman spoke in her usual tone; but her voice trembled a little, and her blue eyes flinched as they met those of her step-daughter.
“You were out lang last nicht, my lassie?” she said, with a queer smile.
“Ay, mither,” said Jessie, calmly enough. But the girl felt weary and said no more. After a short pause Mrs. Cameron spoke again.
“Jessie, I maun gang awa’ Edinbro’ ways the morn’s morn,—to the wee bit village whaur my sister Jean stays wi’ her gudeman. It’s twal mile and a bittock frae here, and I maun e’en tak’ the Edinbro’ coach. I’ll maybe be awa’ ae week and aiblins twa. Ye’ll hae to keep the house by yoursel’ a wee.”
“And what for are ye gaun awa’, mither?” asked Jessie, who was a little surprised by the statement.
“I canna help it, lassie. I’m weel enough now, and I hae had word this day about Jean. (Ye dinna mind her; ye haena seen her face since ye were a wee bit thing. She’s a heap aulder than me.) She’s lyin’ badly wi’ the sma’-pox, puir woman, and I maun dae what I can to bring her roun’. It wadna look kind-like if I stayed awa’.”
This coming from a person who was too ill to venture out to church or go visiting a sick neighbour rather staggered Jessie. But she was not a suspicious girl, and never for a moment doubted the truth of her step-mother’s statement. She made no objection, however surprised she felt at the suddenness of the necessity.
The coach was to pass through the little village at twelve noon. Mrs. Cameron was ready by eleven. A large basketful of “sweet bits” for the invalid was slung on her arm. It happened that the basket had no cover; and, as the dull-eyed woman did not want everybody to pry into its contents, she was obliged to keep her large shawl flung well forward over it. There were sharper eyes than poor inexperienced Jessie’s in that cannie village. The traveller left Jessie busy in the house, and betook herself (ostensibly) to the cross in the centre of the village, where the coach stopped for two minutes on its onward journey. She would not listen to Jessie, who proposed to carry her basket to the place of starting.
A week passed by and Mrs. Cameron did not return. The lovers met only once that week, for Jessie was more than usually busy. Jock was busy too. He toiled at the big bellows all day long: thinking, no doubt, of the dark-eyed lassie on the other side of the way.
Nine days had passed since Mrs. Cameron left home. It was a dark windy night; but Jessie lay fast asleep in the little cottage, dreaming of Jock. The day’s work had been hard. She slept heavily, as only hard-working people sleep. Had her sleep been lighter at the dead hour of the night, when the wind was whistling loudly outside, and darkness lay over the valley like a pall, had her sleep been lighter that noisy night, this true story would never have been written.
There were two rooms in the cottage; in the inner of the two slept Jessie, with the door bolted. The other was the kitchen, in the corner of which was an empty bed. The outer door of all was secured simply by the latch of the lock, and this could only be opened by the proper or a false key. But they had no fear of midnight intruders in those parts. There was nothing in the poor peasants’ cottages of sufficient value to tempt a thief.
At the dead hour of the night, when all was still and calm, the cottage-door was unlocked without a sound, and a dark figure stole in on tiptoe, pausing now and then to listen. The inner door was firmly shut. All seemed safe; the girl was fast asleep. The wind whistled without incessantly. The figure groped its way silently to the kitchen-bed. Then it drew from its bosom something which looked like a large white bundle, and laid it on the bed with a noiseless hand. Jessie slept on, unconscious of this strange visitor. A moment afterwards the dark figure again glided over the threshold, closed the door stealthily behind it, and stood alone in the dark street. Here it paused for a moment, muttering to itself; then it fled hastily through the darkness. It rushed swiftly onward, never once pausing, till it halted by the side of a dark wood, situated some five or six miles from the village. It stood still for a minute, trembling from head to foot. Presently it stepped over the low stone wall and entered the plantation, wandering along through the trees till it left them in a black shadow at its back. It stood beside a quiet cottage at the further corner of the wood; and, tapping at the dark pane, it trembled worse than ever. The door was opened a moment afterwards by a rough-looking man in a gamekeeper’s coat.
“The Lord be thankit, Rab, for it’s a’ owre now. I hae dune it, Rab,—I hae dune it. She slept like a peerie, wi’ her door fast snibbit.”
The man in the gamekeeper’s coat, familiarly addressed as Rab, cocked his eye at the speaker, gave a grunt, and shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s no’ a canny nicht’s work,” said Rab; “I dinna feel sae sure about it. I wadna hae helpit ye ava in the matter, wi’ nae ither raeson than the ane. It’s hard on the lassie; but it’ll tak’ the gumption out o’ the lad. Dinna glower there, woman! Come in wi’ ye; I’m no’ gaun to stand here a’ nicht. It’s dune now, and I maun e’en mak’ the best o’t.”
The woman entered and the door closed with a bang. The cottage, like most others thereabouts, contained a kitchen and a bed-room. A fire was lighted in the former, and on the table were glasses and a bottle containing whiskey. On one part of the dirty wall a shot-pouch and a powder-flask were hung on a rusty nail; a gun was slung across the ingle. The woman, still violently trembling, drew close to the fire; pouring out half a glass of raw spirits, she drank it hastily. The man continued to mutter to himself, cursing the night’s business and eyeing the woman with a hang dog air. But he seemed somewhat afraid of his companion.
“Hoot-toot, man!” said the woman pettishly. “Dinna fash your fule’s head about naething ava. It’s a bad job weel mendit. I ken the lassie weel; a’s safe. She’ll bring the town about her head the morn’s morn, or I’m dafter than ye think me. And whatna story can she tell the folk but ane that a’body ’ll ca’ a silly lee, made up to save hersel’ frae the shame o’ the sin. A’s safe, man; keep up heart.”
Rab shook his ugly head incredulously, and continued to mutter his doubts. The wind roared, and the night wore on, till the grey dawn broke dimly on the strange pair where they sat alone, hid from human observation. The hearts of both were beating loudly, for the woman was weak and the man was a coward. They were trembling for the consequences of the midnight act.
“She’ll hae seen it now, Rab; she’ll be wakened now! I’m feared, I’m feared!”
“Onybody micht see that in your face, I’m thinkin’. I was daft to hae aught to dae wi’t,” said the man in the gamekeeper’s coat.
“Ye were bound to stand by your ain, Rab Simpson; the wrang belanged to baith o’ us.”
“Worse luck,” said Rab.
“Ay!” said the woman, in tones full of bitter meaning. A cat-like look, full of fierce hate, gleamed for an instant in a pair of dull blue eyes.
The dull grey dawn was breaking dimly when Jessie Cameron opened her eyes. She had slept heavily throughout the night, and her slumbers had been visited by pleasant dreams of Jock and little children. She was soon up and dressed, ready to commence the day’s work. She threw open the shutters of her bed-room and gazed out; the rain was falling with a dull monotonous music, and the winds that had whistled all night long were laid. Unlocking the door of the room, she entered the kitchen, singing to herself with a light heart. All was still and dark, till she threw open the kitchen shutters. She was about to open the outer door, when a low sobbing sound broke suddenly on the silence; she started and turned pale. She turned hurriedly round, but saw nothing unusual. But the low sobbing sound, which had ceased for an instant as she listened, was repeated.
Jesse walked towards the bed trembling all over. The mystery was cleared in a moment. Wrapt in an old shawl, and lying half-awake on the pillow, she saw a little baby, very pinky in the face, and with open querulous eyes.
She was stunned with the surprise; her head swam, and her heart began to throb violently. But she was a strong girl, and did not faint. She stood with her mouth and eyes wide open, and her hands lifted, utterly lost in astonishment. She had no time to reflect; but the thing was incomprehensible. Pressing her hands to her temples, she sank into a chair with a suppressed cry. It seemed like a strange dream. Might it not be a dream indeed? To make the matter certain, she rose up and peeped again at the intruder.
It was the smallest and the pinkest of babies; a preposterously babyish baby, with puffed pinky cheeks, and a head as bare as St. Dunstan’s shaven poll. Its great staring blue eyes were wide open, busy in astonished contemplation; its red crimpled tiny fist was in its mouth instead of a lollipop; its little fat toes were poked out kicking from underneath the shawl. Plainly, a careless baby, new to the world of men and women.
It was not till the baby began to cry after babies’ fashion, that Jessie began to comprehend the consequences of its presence in that house. Who would believe her incredible story? Certainly not those incredulous canny queer folk of which a Lowland Scotch village is composed. The purpose of the wretched mother seemed evident; she had sinned the woman’s sin, and was attempting to throw the shame on innocent shoulders. What could poor frightened Jessie plead to save herself in her great dilemma? Nothing satisfactory. Sins of that sort had often been cleverly concealed until the appearance of the new-born accuser. No one would believe her. Heaven seemed against her. She was lost.
By a sudden affrighted impulse she had lifted up the child, and was lulling it on her bosom as these thoughts passed through her brain. Every sound startled her as she did so. What if some of the neighbours should hear the cries? She walked up and down the house, trembling all over, holding the baby in her arms. It was soon quieted; the great staring blue eyes resumed their composure, and the sucking operation was resumed. The pale morning light fell upon the girl’s pale frightened face, blinding her; she closed the shutters. She felt as if she would go mad if the tears did not come to relieve her; but they came not—they were scorched up by her great fear.
The woman in the gamekeeper’s cottage was wrong. Jessie never attempted to alarm the neighbours. Her clear Scotch head detected the whole danger of her situation at once. A medical man might have cleared her, had she thought of that alternative; but there was no doctor in that neighbourhood. The simple fact of the imputation staggered her. But it would have been better far had she alarmed the neighbours; by her secrecy she only laid herself open to more suspicion.
A fierce black element of her nature—an element which lies ready in most natures, but is not always developed by circumstances—was uppermost in her bosom once or twice. She thought of her lover and the slanderous tongues of the villagers. A mad impulse to make away with the child seized upon her; her face darkened, her fingers twitched, and only a strong effort prevented her from strangling the child as it lay, so quietly, in her arms.
Then the womanly instinct arose in her, and conquered all other feelings. She understood the pleading of the little wide eyes, the small pinky face, beaming so innocently with the new life that sinners had given it. Her heart softened. The first scalding tears fell over her cheek; the full fresh torrent burst out, and she wept like a child. The small baby fell asleep. She placed it in bed, tucking it up as tenderly as if it had been her own. Then it was tears, tears, tears.
But the tears exhausted themselves in time; the girl became pale and calm. Her brain was again busy with the strange mystery. She moved to the door; there were no marks of violence; it must have been opened, if opened at all, by a false key. She tried the window next, but found nothing to determine her suspicions; it was firmly shut and bolted, and nobody could have opened it without first breaking the pane. Yes! there was only one clue to the mystery. Somebody must have possessed a latch-key fitting the outer door, and have used it for the purpose of entering during the night. But somehow or other, Jessie did not feel quite satisfied with this solution of the riddle.
Oh! that her stepmother were there to advise her! Even that woman, she thought, would help to relieve her great fear. What was to be done?
The time rolled on. The village was astir; there was a sound of feet and voices. But still Jessie Cameron sat in the little cottage, her head hidden in her hands and her heart quivering through all its pulses. There was no fire in the grate, the shutters were closed, and the place was dark and cold.
Hark! the baby began to cry again! She sprang to her feet, lifted the child from the bed; but in vain. Luckily it struck her that the little thing might want food. There was milk on the dresser; she took it down and broke bread into it. With trembling hands, she began to feed the child.
The morning was wearing on. Jock supped his porridge, put on his coat, and made his way to the smithy. He paused opposite the cottage, but there was nobody visible. Whistling a tune, he took down his shutters. He turned round to look over the way again. The door of the cottage was closed, and the shutters were up. Queer, thought Jock. He entered the smithy and commenced work. No use; he found himself shaking his head, looking over the way, and wondering.
“Can onything hae gane wrang wi’ the lassie?” said Jock to himself.
The bare thought of such a thing was painful. He threw down his tools and stood hesitating.
“I maun e’en gang ower and see if a’s richt wi’ her,” he said.
He walked across the street and paused outside the cottage door. A low sobbing sound fell on his ears as he did so. He trembled in spite of himself. He knocked softly. No answer. Strange, he thought. He tried the door quietly, and found it unlocked. He pushed it open and looked in. There was a loud startled cry inside. His eyes fell upon Jessie Cameron, with the baby on her lap.
His heart leaped up into his mouth. The terrible thought which Jessie dreaded flashed upon him. Jessie could not speak; her tongue refused its office. The man walked over with a fierce look, and placed a firm hand on her shoulders.
“Wha’s wean hae ye there, Jessie Cameron?” he said, between his set teeth. But the girl made no answer; she sat with a dull, stupid look, white as snow.
“Wha’s wean hae ye there, I’m askin’ ye?” he repeated, savagely.
Then, sobbing as if her heart would break, Jessse fell at his feet, with the child in her arms. His suspicions were confirmed by her pale haggard look, and her frightened gestures. She told him the story at last, with hurried words and beseeching looks; the hot true tears fell on the child’s face as she spoke. But he broke out into oaths and bitter curses. Anger at the silly audacity of her falsehood was mingled with anger at her sin. How he would be laughed and pointed at! He felt no pity. His love, which had never been of the most sublimated or unselfish kind, was insulted and wronged. His coarse abuse was horrible to hear. He called her by the foulest of woman’s names, and almost struck her. Then it was that her tears ceased. Her blood began to rise; her eyes lost their look of mild reproach, and kindled into rage. She rose up, with the child in her arms, flushed with passion. She pointed to the door, talking thickly. She placed the baby on the bed, and cried:
“Out o’ this house, man!—and God forgie ye for your fause leein’ names. Awa’, I say, ye coward! Ye fause-hearted, puir-spirited coward! Awa wi’ ye!”
He retreated unconsciously, before her dark flushing face.
“Shame on ye for a sinner, Jessie Cameron!” he cried fiercely, as he crossed the threshold. She closed the door after him. The place swam round her—dark blots floated before her eyes—and she fell on the floor heavily, with a hysterical sob. The excitement had been too much for her.
There she lay, a thing piteous to see, with only half her senses about her, the most innocent of human beings. The hours passed on; but there she lay, oblivious to all save her own misfortune. The baby fell asleep, and lay quiet as a lamb.
If the reader has followed me thus far, he will have detected the stupid clumsiness of the scheme adopted by the mother of the infant. I have already observed that a medical man could soon have cast new light upon the affair by exonerating Jessie. So, for that matter, could any matron in the village. The perpetrator of the villany had never thought of this. Obviously, she was a silly, ignorant woman, driven to despair through her dread of public exposure, and had thoughtlessly hazarded the dangerous expedient. It was certain that the truth—or the part of it which related to the innocent girl—must come out sooner or later. The scheme was rotten in itself, and would not stand the test of severe examination.
Jessie never dreamed of these hopes; she was overcome by the sense of danger. Jock was still blinder. He had not been bred up among perfect people; sins of the kind were common enough in most country places. He was of the Scotch breed, Scotchy, and did not take all externals for granted. Besides, Jessie’s face, pretty as it was, had not driven him crazy: he was fully aware that his sweetheart might have her little weaknesses—and her great ones. When he thought of a wife he acted like a man buying a cheese, in a cheese shop where the cheeses are many; he took the best and most profitable he could set eyes on. So he condescended to vulgar abuse, got into a violent passion, and, not having paid for it, thought fit to return his cheese as hard and hollow. Mind, I am not making a hero; I am simply describing a man. He neither tore his hair, nor went up in a balloon. He simply felt that he was an ill-used fellow, and that Jessie deserved all the odium that might be cast upon her. He never for a moment doubted her guilt; the circumstantial evidence fairly conquered his country head. He set to work, a little down-hearted, and made up his mind to a bad job. I am of course aware that he ought to have gone into heroics, and that my romantic reader will deem him a poor apology for a lover. Take him for what he is worth. There he is; and I assure you that you will meet with many like him in every Scotch village.
Jessie Cameron lay where she had fallen, with her head on the hearthstone. The hours passed slowly by, till it was mid-day. She rose at last, and walked instinctively to the bedside. Somehow or other, the child slept on, belying the childish nature. She bent over the little sleeper with the tears in her eyes.
“Puir wee thing,” she said, sadly, “ye hae fa’un on a sad warl. Oh, but ye’re bonnie, bonnie, wi’ your wee blue een and snaw-white brow! Ye come o’ a bad lot, my wee bit bairn; the Lord hae pity on ye.”
The girl started: there was a knock at the door. She made no answer, and stood stock-still, fear-stricken. There was a slight pause. A moment afterwards the lock moved, the door opened, and Mrs. Cameron entered, the big basket on her arm and the latch-key, which she had seemingly taken with her, in her hand. Plainly, she had not calculated on finding her step-daughter within. She started back with a low cry. The dull-eyed woman was thinner and paler than usual. She had the appearance of a person who had just recovered from a violent illness.
Jessie was about to rush forward, and pour the whole strange story into her stepmother’s ears, when the latch-key caught her eye. I don’t know how it happened, but she restrained herself in the sudden movement. A thought struck her, as new as it was fearful and extraordinary. She looked into the dull-eyed woman’s face; it was white with terror. The thought doubled and trebled itself in a moment; it became a terrible conviction. Some few suspicious recollections arose to endorse it. She ran quickly into the inner room. Strange to say, Mrs. Cameron seemed utterly stunned. Once or twice her lips attempted to utter words of anger and abuse; but the words died away unheard. The girl’s face seemed to appal and startle her. A cold sweat ran over her body. She was speechless and unable to move from the threshold.
Jessie returned to the kitchen in a moment, with her bonnet and shawl thrown loosely on. Her face was very pale, her lips were set closely together, and her hands were tightly clenched. But utter pity, not cruelty, was in her heart. As she walked calmly by the panic-stricken woman, she whispered hotly in her ears:
“If God forgies ye for the wrang ye hae wrought, woman, sae dae I. For the sake o’ the faither that’s gane, I forgie ye. I wadna tell on ye, and folk would ca’ me leear if I did. Nae words o’ mine shall say wha sinned the sin, and cam’ to my dead faither’s house i’ the nicht, to wrang my faither’s dochter. But look whaur it sleeps, the wee wean! Ye maun keep your ain!” She passed swiftly through the door into the street. The dull-eyed woman followed, and watched her till she disappeared. She had taken to one of the roads which led out of the village.
Mrs. Cameron was reassured by those last words—the only absolutely heroic words simple Jessie Cameron ever spoke. Her dull eyes brightened. She found herself strong enough to run among the neighbours, weeping maudlin tears and crying shame on her stepdaughter’s head. If talking is a proof of grief, she was very grieved indeed. The news of the affair soon spread over the village, and poor Mrs. Cameron was much sympathised with and pitied. One circumstance gave her the look of a martyr. The child was not to be blamed, she asseverated weeping; no. Her cruel, heartless daughter had left it behind her; but no matter. She herself would be a mother to it. You must imagine how the women praised this soft-hearted angel, who took so tenderly to the little innocent child.
I have little more to tell, and I will not exhaust my reader’s patience in telling it. The whole truth came out in good time. A year and some months after Jessie’s departure, the cholera passed over the village. Mrs. Cameron was one of its many victims. Before her death, this woman told the whole story to the minister, who lost no time in communicating it to Jock. The baby was her own; it had been born three days after her departure on a pretended visit to her sister. The place of its birth was the cottage of its father, Rab Simpson, a dissolute rascal who lived alone, and who reluctantly consented to receive the frightened mother. She asserted most positively that the crime had not been premeditated; it was suddenly suggested by her dread of shame and ignominy. On her departure from home, she had found the key among the loose things in her pocket, and the fact of its being in her possession had induced her to make the midnight visit. She had quieted the babe with laudanum before leaving it in the cottage. The minister sought for Simpson, who could have established the truth of this statement, but he had gone off (in a drunken fit) to the colonies.
Jock felt terribly down-hearted after this. For two or three months he tried in vain to find out his quondam sweetheart. He ascertained that, immediately on her departure from home, she had gone to a small town about thirty miles distant. There she had taken a farmer’s fee, under an assumed name, and had become a farm-servant. He tracked her from this place to Edinburgh, and thence to Glasgow, where he found her, on the point of emigrating to Australia. He repeated the old offer of marriage. But Jessie shook her head. She could never forget his cruel words, she said. The old love was gone; it was never a deep, all-absorbing love, and now it was all gone. She was deaf to his entreaties.
When Jessie Cameron sailed for Australia, the baby went with her; she adopted it then and there, as the only one of its relations who was willing to do so. She went out as a widow. What became of her and the child afterwards, goodness knows. I should like to chronicle some piece of unusual prosperity: but it is impossible. I have told all I know about the matter.