Tales of To-day
Travellers who have visited Galloway and Annandale within the last forty years, may remember the singular old man known in those districts by the name of Halfpenny Geordie. It was his custom to pick up pebbles on the road, sweep away incumbrances, and notify his good will to passengers by a bow which generally procured him at least a halfpenny. If he could not catch this gift between his teeth, he would scrape the earth over it where it fell, to be removed at a more convenient opportunity. Verbal messages, letters, or parcels of value, were sure of speedy and safe deliverance by this unwearied pedestrian, whose habitation was anywhere beneath the sky, and his clothes of whatever kind pleased the giver. Lean, shrewd, and silver-tongued, he had a grin and a proverb at the service of all passers-by, but especially when the post-chariot of Sir William Bellenden, sheriff of the shire, passed with his fair daughter Leslie, whose tartan scarf and green habit were the admiration of her neighbourhood. The pence she destined for him were always wrapped in white paper, perhaps to prevent their dispersion in the road, but the sages of Twankybeck suspected that these white enveloppes usually found their way to a certain house in the village inhabited by two remarkable persons. We must mention the lady first, being the senior and the heritrix of the mansion, in which her father had once kept an apothecary’s shop. She inherited all his medicines; and many have said, that one of her patients made her an offer of marriage, hoping to preserve his life, but recanted, and took her prescriptions as the easier way of dying. Her present and sole inmate was a young Englishman, who called himself Fairfax, rode well, said little, and spent money freely. Lucky Mactrash had traced the origin of her boarder in all the innocent ways known to a country-town; but as he kept no valet, and neither wrote nor received letters, even Scotch curiosity and perseverance failed. Thrice, however, she had seen Halfpenny Geordie speak to Fairfax at her garden-gate, and on the fourth occasion absolutely saw him enter. Not even the silver tongue and quick ears of Miss Margery Mactrash could avail any thing, for her boarder’s shut doors and austere looks forbad inquisition. Geordie’s eye was not so formidable, and she met him at the gate with a halfpenny.
“Ye’ll bring fair weather, Geordie, when ye come again. The Master never glowrs sa muckle after ye’re gane.”
“It’s like no,” said the Scotsman—“fair and foul weather come for nothing.”
“And it’s like ye carried that bit letter safe—and ye’ll saddle the Master’s grey poney afore night.”
“He cares na for bridle nor saddle,” said the secret keeper—“and I’se no carried the letter yet.”
A large pinch of sneeshin and an offer of some choice tincture for the rheumatism drew the “bit letter” from his leathern poke. “Let’s put a stane on top of t’other letter, or mayhap it may tell someo’t,” quoth Geordie, gravely placing another sealed packet under a heap of pebbles. “Oh!” he added, perching himself above them—“I carried six flasks of the red wine to the Sheriff Depute, and just took one for a taste, and such a bit letter as this told on’t.”
Luckie Mactrash cast an eager glance at the packet so carefully deposited, but neither questions nor jests could induce Geordie to release it from beneath him. And after three or four investigations of the small sealed billet, she discovered enough to obtain for him the recompense of an ounce-bottle of cephalic snuff and advice gratis. Geordie departed on his mission, and the lady to enrich her coterie by her intelligence. Before night it had increased so enormously in bulk, that half Twankybeck believed Fairfax a rebel in covert, and the other half a fugitive convict.
The Sheriff Substitute was not the last to hear of these reports; and being a magistrate of much caution and sagacity, employed his factor to cross-examine the apothecaress of the village. She had derived sufficient courage from her curiosity, and really believed her discoveries licenced her, as a loyal subject, to open her boarder’s portfolio, and read its contents. With great horror and surprise, as she highly venerated a Sheriff Substitute, she had found three or four letters of no distant dates, subscribed Alexander Bellenden, but carefully crossed, and in every line confused by erasures. The good woman’s heart sunk at the offence she had sacrilegiously offered to a Bellenden; but when the great man’s deputy came himself to visit her, it rose to her lips, and poured out the whole secret. The commissioner was startled, and the instant consequence of his communications to his master was a mysterious letter written and despatched by Sir William Bellenden to his Brother Alexander.—Our readers must remember, that in this country, and at this time, the letters from scattered country-houses were conveyed to the post-office by Halfpenny Geordie, who enjoyed many fees and privileges for thus performing a supplementary part to the Mail-carrier. But he stopped on this occasion, as he had done many times before, at Fairfax’s place of rendezvous, and, by his permission, the letter was read and resealed by Mrs. Mactrash. From her hand it went no farther than to Fairfax, who laughed heartily as he perused it, and furnished Geordie with this reply, which, in due time, was brought from the proper post, and submitted to her inspection.
“I cannot imagine why you question me about my—son I will not call him. He is an idle, meddling, impertiment fool in politics, and a knave in other matters, which I have no objection to, for he has no other way of making his fortune. You and I mean to give him nothing, and this is all we ever agreed in all our lives. So it seems we agreed in nothing—I was once,
“Your friend and brother, A. B.”
Honest Geordie carried this missive to the Sheriff, after allaying the pangs of Miss Mactrash’s curiosity by allowing her to peruse it. In less than three days the effect was manifest. Instead of praising her inmate’s fine figure and gracious address to her visitors, the prudent old lady began to spread her tea-table in another room, and asked Sandy M‘Quirk to alter the codicil she had made in his favour. Two or three neighbouring gentlewomen, who had shewn Fairfax some grace, went in pure benevolence through every house in the village to whisper the truth, and the Sheriff-clerk resolved to remove him by a hint to the higher powers. This hint, like every other conveyed to the post through Simple Geordie’s medium, fell into the hands of Fairfax; and as it was not addressed to his uncle, whose help he might have expected, it alarmed him considerably. There were circumstances in his present situation which could not conveniently encounter judicial examination, and he walked about the little inn-yard in an extremity of despair, when Simple Geordie clapped his shoulder—
“Sit ye down bye, and stir none—I’se come in an hour.”
Two or three hours after dusk, the Sheriff Substitute’s carriage came to the obscure and naked hovel which a few beggars called an inn. Fairfax was waiting there, when Geordie, equipped in a yellow wig, a coat of far too great extent in the skirts, and half a brocade petticoat made into a waistcoat, like Falstaff’s device of a herald’s coat without sleeves, ushered two servants with great gravity into his presence. They obeyed his significant gesture, took Fairfax gently in their arms, and carried him to the Sheriff’s equipage, which drove very gently away. Another posse of strong serving men conveyed him from it to a state-bed in Bellenden House, and Geordie stationed himself in quality of valet beside his sick master. The Sheriff, whose public duties had compelled him to be absent, entered a few instants after. He was hastily withdrawing the curtain, when Geordie interposed to remind him, that his Brother Alexander had not yet recovered his fatigue. But he resolutely insisted on seeing at least the sick man’s face, and Fairfax, with a beard of four days growth, eyes made fierce and hollow by anxiety, and a complexion ghastly as fear and art could render it, was forced to shew his head between the useful shadow of two pillows. The good Sheriff squeezed his hand, and wept—the sight of his supposed Brother, whom he had not seen many years, reduced to paralytic helplessness and second childhood, with the outline of his youthful beauty still remaining, affected him extremely. Fairfax, who had never before seen his uncle, and whose deep distress justified this stratagem, could not himself suppress tears, as he held in silence the hand of a man who looked on him with such earnest, though mistaken, affection. It was fortunate that some sad ideas weighed upon him, or he would have been compelled to laugh by the undaunted knavery of Simple Geordie, who interrupted the Sheriff’s lamentations with great dryness.
“Ye see, sir, if it would just please ye to order ould master a bit and soup; for ever since the paralytics took him, he has been awſu’ loth to part wi ony thing. And it’s like he’s a thinking now of his graceless son, who is, I’se bold to say, the vary pink and picture of his father in all things—and there’s sma’ doubt, if he was lying in that bed, ye’d no ken one from t’other.”
“I am grieved at heart,” said Sir William Bellenden,” that I wrote to remind him of that foolish boy, or that I could not prevent him coming to my neighbourhood in this miserable manner, on a hired hack, with only one attendant.”
“Saving your worship’s presence,” answered Geordie, understanding the glance of the Sheriff’s eye, and fixing his own with excellent slyness—“it would na become me to fash at wearing the Master’s cast off apparel, forbye he has little enough at home, and seldom wears much on’t. And I’m free to say he wad be ill-pleased if ye did na gi’ him a few pieces of gowld, just for the sight, for it’s ill to get him to sleep unless he has coin in his hand.”
Sir William assented to every thing; and his blue-eyed daughter, after much encouragement, stole on tiptoe to see her uncle, and shrank away, affrighted, as it seemed, at his ghastly countenance. Geordie declared himself sufficient to watch by his dear master, and when the door was closed, whispered in his ear—“Ye’re in the Tod’s own hole, now, but ye maunna play the fause loon long—for there’s ill news at Twankybeck. Ye’re ain father’s come to the Brig of Annan, and he’ll be here at morn.”
“Then I am undone—utterly undone!” said Fairfax, starting up; “and instead of devising this rash counterfeit of my father, I must ask my uncle to forgive his nephew, stranger and culprit as he is—He will keep me in his house from danger and—”
“Bide your time,” said Geordie solemnly, and marched away—not to rest, but to steal from the wardrobe where he had seen them lodged, a suit of the Sheriff’s own apparel, which he compressed into less room than any packer unacquainted with a Scotch pedlar’s mode could imagine. He wisely considered, that if the real Alexander Bellenden, father of young Fairfax, should have time to make his appearance, the bold fraud which had given present safety to the son would be finally defeated, and forced to end in a most perilous discovery. Geordie’s simplicity had served him always as a cover to all kinds of atchievements, for simple men may hazard more than the wisest. He went into the stable, ordered the best horse, and sallied forth, as he said, to execute some business for his master. At the Brig of Annan, he changed his apparel, rode into the chief inn’s yarn, and desired the waiter to announce Sir William Bellenden to his brother.
Colonel Alexander Bellenden was a stern and violent man, in whom infirmity had excited bitterness rather than regret. An old quarrel had divided him more than twenty years from his only brother, of whose declining health be had heard with the churlishness which all men affect who dare not suffer the pain of repentance. He rose, however, at the unexpected sound of his Brother’s name, and the tremor of palsy and surprise overcame the menacing stiffness he attempted. But when he cast his eyes on the figure that approached him, a figure so lean, bent, and ill-suited to its covering; when he saw the face which, as he supposed, was once so like his own, shrunk into the most singular case of leathern features ever seen, the mouth awry, the nose, wonderfully knobbed, and the eyes gleaming with a sort of changeable light like magic lanterns, he could not help exclaiming, “O Willie! what is become of thee?”
It would have been good for a painter to have seen the deliberate and stead gaze fixed by the counterfeit Sir William on his supposed brother’s face; and the strange attitude of aghast amazement in which Colonel Bellenden stood stiffened before him.—“It is come to me, brother, as it is to thee, to be an odd, ill-favoured, and ill-tempered man; and if there is ought unseemly and unbefitting in my coat and its appurtenances, it is because I have lent my upper garment to a man in need.”
“I should rather think, Willy Bellenden,” said the Colonel, “that your own need was the greatest.”
“So it might be,” answered Geordie, “but that man in need was your son.”
Alexander Bellenden became pale, gathered up his thick grey eyebrows, and stepping two paces back from his supposed Brother, said fiercely, “I have no son—I have said it at daybreak—I have said it at night—there is no pardon for him; and I wish these words to be my last.”
The Beggar lost, as he heard this terrible answer, all remembrance of the part he had intended to act, and the language he had assumed. “What are ye, Alexander Bellenden, that ye should dare to call evil on your Son? What am I, that ye can look on my grey hairs, and my meagre bones, and be proud of your aim clay? But there is no mony days for me, and none for ye.”
Geordie added no more, for the prediction was accomplished. The last words of Colonel Bellenden had been those of his wrath, and he breathed no more. A sudden stroke of apoplexy deprived him of existence, but his visitor did not venture to await the assembling of servants or their enquiries. On the table lay a leathern pocket-book, and by its side a large sealed parcel addressed to his son. Geordie hesitated only two moments, for the parcel was heavy; and being so close in the vicinity of a book well-filled with notes, promised his young friend a seasonable supply. He placed it in his pocket, remounted his good horse, and returned to Sir William Bellenden’s in his former attire before daybreak.
But Fairfax, either too conscious of his extreme danger to act the necessary part, or ashamed of a fraud so daring, had abandoned his uncle’s house in the night, and the Sheriff Substitute, now aware of some confederacy, was prepared to seize poor Geordie on his return. He was arrested, and conveyed to the town-gaol on the heavy charge of having aided in bringing into Sir William Bellenden’s house a young impostor in the name and garb of that brother who was now no more. But neither threats nor bribes could induce the wary Scotsman to name his accomplice, or give any clue to his retreat. Still more serious charges multiplied against him. Sir William’s brother had been found dead in the inn-parlour, and his death might have been occasioned either by a blow or the sudden visitation of apoplexy. His pocket-book, and a very important packet which he had been heard mentioning in terms of great anxiety, were missing. Two or three domestics of the inn identified Geordie’s person, and declared him to have visited the deceased a few moments before he was found lifeless, in a suit of apparel which was also identified as a theft from Sir William’s wardrobe. The suspicion was dark, and confirming circumstances almost irresistible, except that neither the packet nor the pocket-book could be found in his possession. No one thought or spoke of this point in his favour but the Baronet’s daughter Leslie, who interposed once or twice a few timid hints in his behalf. Influenced by them, or rather by his own benevolent disposition, to judge slowly, the Sheriff Substitute went, accompanied by another magistrate, to examine the accused once more.
“What could induce you, prisoner,” said Mr. Mucklequack, writer to the signet, “to visit the defunct Colonel Bellenden in the garb and equipage of his Brother?”
“I am motioned to think,” said the prisoner, very drily, “that the claise of his honour there would na fit me.”
“I ask you,” interposed the brother-magistrate, “whether you did or did not converse with my late brother at the Brig of Annan, and for what purpose?”
“It’s humbly my thought,” returned Geordie, “that ye’ve no certie of ony man’s seeing your honour’s brother or the likes of him ony where, but ye may ask Lucky Mactrash—if a woman did na’ see him,”
The Procurator protested there could be no concern between Miss Mactrash and the business in question.
“Truly there’s few meddlements in this shire that she has na’ helped in, and it’s a sma’ marvel that she should pit her finger in a poor body’s like mine. ‘Geordie,’ says she, ‘an’ we could but wile away a pair o’ the Sheriff’s grey hose, and his wee bit coat and his wig, they would na fit me amiss, and I could may be get a sight in ’em of his brother Sandy, and have a flyte wi’ him to mak’ him keep his promise.’ And, quo’ she, ‘he has ca’d me his wife already before three elders, but ever sin I made the bit mistake, and gae’d him sacks of antimony in the gout, he wad lowp owr the Brig of Annan to miss me.’”
“Called Lucky Mactrash his wife!” interrupted the elder Bellenden, with great ire—“I remember her abominable prescription of calx of antimony caused a colliquation of his whole system.”
“Just that was her vary word—a coruscation instead of a wee fit o’ the gout; So ever since the Colonel wad’ never sae much as hear of her; and she just pit on ye’re honour’s mouse-coloured wig and lang plaid wrapper to speak a bit wi’ her jo’ about auld lang syne.”
“This is not altogether impossible, gentlemen,” said the learned Clerk, “though it is contrary to law for females to appear in our apparel; and I do not well conceive how the rotund figure and plump cheeks of Margery, alias Lucky Mactrash, could in any way be made to resemble Sir William Bellenden’s tall and venerable presence. As for the epithet of wife, said to have been used by the deceased, I think it of small import, as there is small doubt that he only called her wifey, which Scotticism implies gossip or goody.”
This nice point, though it has been proved sufficient in a Scotch court, was not the first object of his patron’s attention. Geordie stated his facts with such simple and dry accuracy, that Sir William could not resolve to believe the whole what the law calls “a lie with a circumstance.” And the judicial men went without delay to the mansion of the ancient spinster, who received them, unsuspicious of their purpose, with great reverence and alacrity. By the advice of his legal friend, the magistrate artfully addressed such questions as he thought might discover if Lucky Mactrash could have had any hopes or views, relating to his deceased brother, and she, with the heedlessness of vanity, seized eagerly on his hints, and made such answers as strangely confirmed Geordie’s tale of “an auld love-token” between her and Colonel Bellenden. Simple Geordie could not have been more apt and abundant in inventions than the lady of the laboratory to establish her claim on the dead-man’s heart, which, as his brother begun the subject, must, she thought, be some way connected with a bequest from his purse. She was horribly undeceived, when Sir William, armed with a search-warrant, demanded access to all her repositories in quest of the property which had been feloniously taken from his brother. And much more was her dismay, when, perceiving the trace of a man’s footstep through the mould of her garden, they arrived at the door of an old wood house or ruined hovel, in which she asserted, with long and loud exclamations, that nothing could be found except an old pestle and mortar formerly in her father’s employ. Nothing else was visible, but its size, its singular situation, and, above all, her notorious habit of untruth, caused the clerk to investigate the mortar, in which, concealed by a few dry leaves, lay the packet superscribed by Colonel Bellenden, sealed with his seal, and addressed to his son. It was evidently the important packet so earnestly sought, and though the unbroken seal might have convinced the finders that Miss Mactrash knew nothing of it, the ministers of justice conveyed her mercilessly to their chamber. There she was confronted by Geordie, who maintained an obstinate silence in opposition to her eloquence, till the judge was on the point of committing both for contempt of his authority, which could extort nothing like truth from either. And she was in the very instant of confessing that she had bought a pair of silk hose and a tartan cloak of Halfpenny Geordie for a box of medicated quassia, when Fairfax himself entered. He was in no disguise, and begged in great agitation to be heard. He had received, he said, the most hospitable shelter from the busy, but benevolent, gossip of the village, and the rarest proofs of fidelity from poor Geordie, whose danger he could not know without giving some evidence in his favour. He ended by surrendering himself into his uncle’s official custody, as the greatest culprit of the three, and was asked if he knew any thing of the packet’s contents. “Not a word, as I’m a sinner!” said Geordie, suddenly snatching it up—“and I’d have eaten every bit paper in’t if I’d have thought of ye’re finding it, but I said to mysell, naebody will ever go to Lucky Mactrash’s physic-mill, for fear of mischief.” And he threw it into the hands of Fairfax, who yielded it respectfully to his uncle. Sir William Bellenden led his nephew into another room, where breaking the seals of the packet he shewed him its contents, a roll of letters in cypher and anonymous fragments, evidences of his rash correspondence with factious men, who had abandoned and betrayed their friends. Without one word of rebuke or admonition, the uncle committed these fatal documents into the flames. Fairfax felt the release from infamy and swearing to deserve the generous trust in his honour, was received again into the home and happiness of his family. The Lady Bluemantle of Twankybeck made vows against unseasonable boasts of secret news and old lovers; and Halfpenny Geordie, or some kinsman to whom he bequeathed his name and profession, continued till very lately the favourite vagrant of Galloway.”
“I must now have leave to say,” said the queen of our tale-telling party, “that my turn is come. I have sat patiently, like Lalla Rookh, while my Fadladdin and the rest of my court have talked; but as I have no prince or bridal palanquin in view, my compensation must be a double share of time to talk myself.” And putting her hand into the portfolio of drawings which decided the subjects of our tales, she added, “The two last numbers of our lottery are almost blanks. A head of Queen Elizabeth’s schoolmistress, Dame Bryan, and a whole length of an old Scotch countess hanging in an iron cage! Let me try if I can match these ancient originals in high political life with two modern counterparts in fact and fashion.”