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Read Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland Volume XVII Part 7

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XIII.–PORTER’S HOLE.

In the west corner of the churchyard of Dalgarno–now a section of the parish of Closeburn–there is a small, but neat headstone, with two figures joining hands, as if in the att.i.tude of marrying. Beneath is written, and still legible–“John Porter and Augnas Milligan. They were lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.” There is neither date nor narrative; but, as this part of the churchyard has not been used as a burial-ground since the union of the parishes, in the reign of Charles the Second, the date must have been some time betwixt 1660 and 1684. This beautiful and sequestered churchyard, all silent and cheerless as it is, lies upon the banks of the Nith, immediately upon its union with the ocean; and near to the most famous salmon-fishing pool in the whole river, called Porter’s Hole. Whilst yet a boy, and attending Closeburn school, our attention was, one sunny afternoon, (when the trouts were unwilling to visit the dry land,) drawn to the little stone in the corner, of which we have just made mention, and recollecting, at the same time, that Porter was the name of the pool, as well as of the person buried, we began to speculate upon the possibility of there being some connection betwixt the two circ.u.mstances–the name of the individual, and the well-known designation of the blackest and deepest pool in the Closeburn part of the river. Near to this solitary restingplace of the ashes of our forefathers–the Harknesses, the Gibsons, and the Watsons of Closeburn from time immemorial–there stood, at that time, an old cottage, straw or rather _gra.s.s_-thatched, (for it was covered with green chicken-weed,) where dwelt, in single solitude, Janet M’Guffoch–whether any relation of the celebrated individual of that name mentioned by Sir Walter Scott, we know not–but there dwelt Janet, a discontented, old waspish body of one hundred years of age, according to general belief; and, being accompanied by a black cat and a broom besom, was marked by us _boys_ as a decided witch. We never had any doubt about it, and the thing was confirmed by the Laird of Closeburn’s gamekeeper, who swore that he had often hunted hares to Janet’s door; but never could start them again. Under all these circ.u.mstances, it required no common impulse to induce us to enter the den of this emissary of Satan; but our curiosity was excited by the similarity of the names “Porter’s Grave” and “Porter’s Hole,” (as the pool was familiarly named,) and we at length mustered faith, and strength, and courage to thrust ourselves past a bundle of withered twigs, which served Janet as a door in summer, and as a door-protector in the blasts of winter. Janet was as usual at her wheel, and crooning some old Covenanting ditty, about–

“Oh, gin Lag were dead and streekit, An’ that his ha’ wi’ mools was theekit!”

when, by means of a six-inch-square skylight, our physiognomy became visible to Janet.

“And what art thou, that’s creeping into an old body’s dark den, and leaving ahint thee the guid sunshine?”

We responded by mentioning our name.

“Ay, ay,” said Janet, “come away and sit thee down on the creepy there, beside the heidstane[B]–thou art freely welcome, for thou art o’ the seed o’ the faithful, the precious salt of the earth: and the blessing of the G.o.d of the Covenant will rest upon its children, even to the third and the fourth generation!” Thus welcomed, we took our position as requested, eyeing all the while the large black cat with a somewhat suspicious regard.

“The beast winna stir thee,” said Janet, “it has, like its auld mistress, mair regard for the martyr’s seed.”

Having hereupon taken advantage of a pause in Janet’s discourse, we at once stated the subject of our inquiry.

“Ay, ay,” said Janet; “and atweel there is a connection betwixt that bonny angel stane, and the pool ca’ed Porter’s Hole. Ay, is there; an an awfu’

connection it is. But what comes thou here for to torment an auld body like me, wi’ greeting and groaning at my time o’ life? Gae awa, gae awa–I canna thole the very thochts o’ the story whilk thou ettles to ken.”

This only increased our curiosity, and, after some flattering language about Janet’s good nature, retentive memory, and Covenanting lineage, the old crone proceeded to the following purpose; and, as nearly as we can mind, (for it is a tale o’ fifty years,) repeated it in the following words:–

“Thou ken’s the auld ruin, bairn, the auld wa’s out by there. That’s the auld farm-house o’ Dalgarno, ere the new one at the path-head was biggit; and there, within the wa’s, was ance a warm hearth, and twa as leal hearts as ever beat against pin or b.u.t.ton. John Porter was young, handsome, and the tenant of the best farm in the parish o’ Dalgarno; but he was nae frien to the vile curate, and a marked bird, as they ca’ it, by Grierson o’ Lag, in particular, who had been heard to say, that he would decant his porter for him some day yet, in the shape and colour of heart’s bluid. Agnes Milligan was an orphan, brought up at Dalgarno–a sister’s son o’ the auld Dalgarno, and a fu’ cousin, ye ken, o’ the young farmer. They had baith fed frae the same plate; sleeped under the same roof; played at the same sports; and dabbled in the same river–the b.l.o.o.d.y, b.l.o.o.d.y Nith!–from infancy to youth. Oh! sirs! but I canna get on ava”—- Here Janet sorted her wheel, and apparently shed a tear, for she moved her ap.r.o.n corner to her eye. “Aweel, this was the nicht o’ the wedding, bairn–no _this_ nicht, like; but I think I just see it present, for I was there mysel, a wee bit whilking la.s.sie. Lawson, guid G.o.dly Lawson, had tied the knot, an’ we war a’ merry like; but it was a fearfu’ spate, and the Nith went frae bank to brae. ‘They are comin!’ was the cry. I kenna wha cried it, but a voice said it, an’ twenty voices repeated it. Lag an’ his troop’s coming; they’re gallopin owre the Cunning-holm at this moment. John Porter flew to his bonnet, an’, in an instant, was raised six or seven feet high on his long stilts, with which he had often crossed the Nith when nae mortal could tak it on horseback. Agnes Milligan was out and after; the moon shone clear through a cloud, and she saw the brave man tak the water at the broadest.

On he went–for we a’ witnessed what he did–on he went, steady, firm, an’

unwaverin; but, alas! it was hin’ harvest, an’ some sheaves o’ corn had been carried off the holms by the spate. Ane o’ them crossed his upper stilt, an’, in a moment, his feet went frae him, an’ doon he cam into the roarin flood. He was still near the Closeburn bank, an’ we a’ ran down the side to see if we could help him out. Again an’ again he rose to his feet; but the water was mighty, it was terrible, it just whumbled him owre, an’

we saw nae mair o’ him. Agnes ran for Porter’s Hole, (then only kent as the salmon pool,) an’ stood watching the eddy, as it whirled straw an’ corn, an’ sic like rubbish, aboot. Her husband’s head appeared floating in the whirl–she screamed, leaped into the deep, deep pool, an’ next day they were found clasped in each other’s arms. Oh, my bairn, my bairn!–what brocht ye here the day?”

Janet was found, next morning, dead in her bed–the exertion and excitement had killed her.

FOOTNOTES:

[B] _Vide_ Jameson.

THE RECLUSE.

The situations of farm-houses, or steadings, as we call them in Scotland, are very rarely selected so much for their beauty, with reference to the surrounding scenery, as for conveniency; and hence it is that we find but few of them in positions which a view-hunter would term strikingly felicitous. When they are so, we rather presume the circ.u.mstance arises from its happening that eligibility and choice have agreed in determining the point. Yet, seriously, though the generality of farm-steadings have little to boast of as regards situation, there are many pleasing exceptions. Nay, there are some to be found occupying the most choice positions–surrounded with or overlooking all that is beautiful in nature.

One of these, most certainly, is the farm-house of West Mains, in the parish of Longorton, Lanarkshire. It stands on the summit of a gentle, isolated eminence that rises in the very centre of a deep and romantic valley, formed of steep green hills, thickly wooded towards the bottom, but rising in naked verdancy from about the centre upwards. The view from the house is thus, indeed, limited; but this limitation is amply compensated by its singular beauty.

About fifty years ago, this beautifully-situated farm-house was occupied by one Robert Adair, who rented also the entire valley in which it is situated. Adair’s family, at this time, consisted of himself, his wife, a son, and two daughters, Martha and Rosina, or Rosy, as she was familiarly called. The former was, at the period of our story, in her twentieth year, the latter in her eighteenth. Martha was a good-looking and good-tempered girl; but, in both respects, and in several others, she was much surpa.s.sed by her younger sister, Rosy, as we, too, prefer to call her. The latter, with, personal attractions of no common order, was one of the liveliest and most cheerful creatures imaginable. Nothing could damp her buoyant spirit; nothing, be it what it might, could make her sad for longer than ten minutes together. From morning to night she continued pouring out, in a voice of the richest and most touching melody, the overflowings of a light and innocent heart. And scarcely less melodious was the joyous and gleeful laugh, in which she ever and anon gave way to the promptings of a lively and playful imagination. Let it not, however, be thought that all this apparent levity of manner was the result of an unthinking or uncalculating mind, or that it was in her case, as it frequently is in others, a.s.sociated with qualities which exclude the finer and better feelings of female nature. It was by no means so. With all her gaiety and sportiveness, she had a heart filled with all the tenderest sensibilities of a woman. Her attachments were warm and ardent. In character, simple and sincere, Rosy could have died for those she loved; and so finely strung were the sympathies of her nature, that they were wrought on at will by either mirth or pathos, and with each were found equally to accord.

Rosy’s father, Mr Adair, although holding a considerable extent of land, and paying a very handsome rental, was yet by no means in affluent circ.u.mstances. Both his name and his credit in the country were on a fair footing, and he was not enc.u.mbered with more debt than he could very easily pay. But this was all; there was no surplus–nothing to spare; and the less, that he had been liberal in his expenditure on the education of his daughters. On this he had grudged no cost; they had both pa.s.sed several winters in Glasgow, and had there possessed themselves of some of the more elegant accomplishments in female education.

In character, Robert Adair was something of an original. In speech, blunt, plain, and humorous; but in disposition, kind, sincere, and generous. He was, in short, in all respects an excellent and worthy man. On the score of education, he had not much to boast of; but this deficiency was, in part at any rate, compensated by great natural shrewdness and vigour of mind.

Such, then, were the inmates of the farm-house of West Mains, at the period to which our story refers, and which is somewhere about the year 1788.

It was at the close of a day of incessant rain, in the month of September of that year, or it may, perhaps, have been of the year following, that a young man, of somewhere about five-and-twenty years of age, respectably dressed, with a stick in his hand, and a small leathern bundle under his arm, presented himself at the door of Robert Adair’s house, and knocked for admittance. The door was opened by Robert himself; and when it was so, the person whom we have described stood before him. He was drenched with wet.

It was streaming from his hat, and had soaked him all over to the skin. He was thus, altogether, in most uncomfortable plight; for, besides being wet, the night was intensely cold.

“Can you, my good friend,” said the stranger, in a tone and manner that bespoke a person of education at least, if it might not be ventured to call him a gentleman–“Can you give me quarters for a night?” he said, on being confronted by Mr Adair. “I am an entire stranger in this part of the country, and do not know of any inn at hand, otherwise I would not have troubled you. I will, very readily, pay for my accommodation.”

“A nicht’s quarters, frien,” replied Adair. “Oh, surely, ye’ll get that, an’ welcome. Walk in. Save us, man, but ye hae gotten a soakin! Ye’re like a half-drooned rat. But stap in, stap in. There’s a guid fire there in the kitchen and I’m sure ye’re no out the need o’ a blink o’t.”

In a minute after, the stranger was comfortably seated before a roaring fire. But his host’s hospitality did not end with this kindness; he insisted on his guest shifting himself; and, to enable him to do so, brought him a whole armfull of his own clothes; shirt, coat, waistcoat, trousers, and stockings. Nor with this kindness did his benevolence yet terminate; he invited the stranger to accept of some refreshment; an invitation which he followed up by desiring his daughter Rosy to cover a small table close by the fire, and to place thereon such edibles as she had at hand. Delighting as much as her father in acts of kindness, Rosy hastened to obey an order so agreeable to her. In a trice, she had the table covered with various good things, conspicuous amongst which was a jolly round of salt beef. In compliance with the request of his host, the stranger drew into the table thus kindly prepared for him; but, to the great disappointment of his entertainer, ate very sparingly.

“Dear help me, man!–eat, eat, canna ye!” exclaimed Adair, every now and then, as he marked the listless manner in which the stranger pecked at the food on his plate. “Eat, man, canna ye!” he said, getting absolutely angry at his guest’s want of appet.i.te, which he construed into diffidence. “Lord, man, take a richt whang on your plate at once, and dinna be nibblin at it that way, like a mouse at a Du’lap cheese.” Saying this, he seized a knife and fork, cut a slice from the cold round, an inch in thickness, and at least six in diameter, and threw it on the stranger’s plate with much about the same grace which he exhibited in tossing a truss of hay with a pitchfork. “There, man, tak half-a-dizzen o’ cuts like that, and then ye may say ye hae made a bit supper o’t.”

Robert Adair was, in truth, but a rough table attendant, but he was a kind one, and in all he said and did meant well, however uncouthly it might be expressed.

Of this the stranger seemed perfectly aware; and, although he could not eat, he appeared fully to appreciate the sincerity of his host’s invitations to him to do so.

After persevering, therefore, a little longer, as if to please his entertainer, he at length laid down his knife and fork, and declared that he was now satisfied, and could take no more. On his making this decided movement–

“My faith,” said his hospitable landlord, “an’ ye be na waur to water than to corn, I think I could board ye, an’ no be a loser, for a very sma’

matter. Rosy, bring b.u.t.t the bottle.”

Obedient to the command, Rosy tripped out of the kitchen, and in an instant returned with the desiderated commodity–a dumpy, bluff, opaque bottle, of about a gallon contents–which she placed on the table. Adair seized it by its long neck, and, filling up a br.i.m.m.i.n.g b.u.mper, tossed it off to the health of his guest. This done, he filled up another topping gla.s.s, and presented it to the stranger, with a strong recommendation on the score of excellence. “Ra-a-l guid stuff, sir,” he said, “tak my word for’t. Juist a cordial. Noo, dinna trifle wi’ your drink as ye did wi’ your meat, or I’ll no ken what to think o’ ye at a’.”

The stranger, with renewed acknowledgments for the kindness shewn him, took the proffered beverage; but, instead of taking it off as his worthy host had expected, he merely put it to his lips, and replaced it on the table.

“Weel, that cowes the gowan!” said Adair. “Ye’ll neither hap nor wyn–neither dance nor haud the candle. Try’t again, man, try’t again.

Steek your een hard, gie ae gulp, an’ ower wi’t.”

The worthy man, however, pressed in vain. The stranger would not drink; but once more acknowledged the kindness and well-meant hospitality of his entertainer.

During all this time, the stranger had neither said nor done any single thing which was capable of imparting the slightest idea of who or what he was–where he was from, or whence he was going. Indeed, he hardly spoke at all; and the little he did speak was almost all confined to brief expressions of thanks for the kindness shewn him. When seen as he was now, under more favourable circ.u.mstances than those in which he had first presented himself, shivering with cold and drenched with wet, he exhibited a handsome exterior. His countenance was full of expression and intelligence, but was overspread with an apparently deep-seated and settled melancholy. He appeared, in short, to be a person who was suffering severely either in body or mind; but his affliction exhibited all the symptoms of being of the latter rather than the former. Yet was not the profound gravity of his manner of an unpleasing or repulsive character; it partook of a gentleness and benevolence that rendered it rather graceful than otherwise. The tones of his voice, too, corresponded with these qualities; they were mild and impressive, and singularly agreeable.

Altogether, the stranger appeared a mysterious sort of person; and greatly did it puzzle Mr Adair and all his household to conjecture who or what he could possibly be; a task to which they set themselves after he had retired to bed, which he did–pleading fatigue as an excuse–at an early hour. The first ostensible circ.u.mstance connected with their guest of the night, which the family divan, with the father of it at their head, took into consideration when discussing the knotty points of the stranger’s character and calling, was his apparel. But of this they could make nothing. His habiliments were in no ways remarkable for anything; they being neither good, bad, nor indifferent, but of that indefinite description called respectable. So far as these were concerned, therefore, he might be either a peer of the realm or an English bagman.

Finding they could make nothing of the clothes, the family cabinet council next proceeded to the looks and manners of the stranger; and, with regard to these, all agreed that they seemed to bespeak the gentleman; and on this conclusion from the premises, none insisted more stoutly than Rosy, who, let us observe, although she thought n.o.body saw her, had taken several stolen glances at the subject of discussion while he was seated at the kitchen fire; and at each glance, let us farther observe, more and more approved of his finely arched eyebrows, his well-formed mouth, dark expressive eyes, and rich black locks that cl.u.s.tered around his white and open forehead. But all this is a secret, good reader, and should not have been told.

So far, then, had the united opinions of the family determined regarding their guest. But what should have brought him the way of West Mains, such an out-of-the-way place, seeing that he had neither gun, dog, nor fishing-rod, and could not therefore have been in pursuit of sport? It was odd, unaccountable. Where could he be from? Where could he be going to?

These were questions more easily put than answered; and by all were they put, but by none were they replied to. At length, Mr Adair took speech in hand himself on the subject.

“I kenna, nor, indeed, neither do I muckle care, wha the lad is; but he seems to me to be a ceevil, discreet, young man; and I rather like him a’thegither, although he’s a dooms bad haun at baith cap and trencher. A’, however, that we hae to do wi’ him, is to treat him ceevily while he’s under our roof. He’s gotten a guid bed to lie in, and in the mornin we’ll gie him a guid breakfast to tak the road wi’, and there’ll be an end o’t.

It’s no likely we’ll ever hear or see mair o’ him.” Having said this, Robert broke up the conclave; gave the long-drawn sonorous yawn that his family knew to be the signal of preparation for bed. In the next moment, Adair’s left hand was busily employed in undoing the knee b.u.t.tons of his small clothes. Another powerful yawn, and he proceeded to perform the same operation on his right leg. In two minutes after, he was snugly buried beneath the blankets; his “honest, sonsy, bawsint face,” and red Kilmarnock night-cap, being all that was left visible of him; and, in five minutes more, a magnificent snore intimated to all whom it might concern, that worthy Robin Adair was fairly in the land of Nod, and oblivious of all earthly concerns.

On the following morning, Mr Adair and his guest met at breakfast, when that liking for each other which had begun to manifest itself on the preceding night–although neither, perhaps, could say precisely whence it arose–gradually waxed into a somewhat stronger feeling. Adair was pleased with the gentle and unaffected manners of his guest, while the latter was equally pleased with the sincerity of character and generosity of heart of his entertainer. It appeared, however, as if their acquaintance was to be but of short duration, and as if they were now soon to part, in all probability for ever. Circ.u.mstances seemed to point to this result; yet it was by no means the one that followed–an odd incident at once threw out all such calculation.

When breakfast was concluded, and the party who had sat around the table–Adair, his family, and the stranger–had risen to their feet, the latter, smiling through his natural gravity, asked his host if he would be so good as give him a private interview with him. To this Mr Adair, although not a little surprised at the request, consented, and led the way into a small back-parlour that opened from the room in which they had breakfasted.

“Mr Adair,” said the stranger, on their entering this apartment, and having previously secured the door, “I am greatly indebted to you for the kindness and hospitality you have shewn me.”

“No the least, sir–no the least,” replied the farmer, with a decree of respect in his manner with which his guest’s air and bearing had unconsciously inspired him, he did not know how or wherefore–“No the least. I am aye glad to shew civility to them that seek the shelter o’ my rufe; it’s just a pleasure to me. Ye’re not only heartily welcome, sir, to a’ ye hae gotten, but to a week o’t, an’ ye like. I dinna think that I wad be the first to weary o’t.”

———-

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