― 169 ―

A Sexagenarian Idyll


“GIE'S owre my specs, Tibbie; I'll tak' a bit look owre the paper. No' that there's muckle intilt; I jalouse—my specs, wuman, my specs, no' my pipe. Losh save's a', Tibbie, ye're gettin' as deaf's a dead tyke.note Humph! but there's nane sae deaf as them that winna hear, I'm thinkin'.”

“Ay, ay, Symie, my man, there's yer specs to ye. I ken I'm gettin' deaf, but we're no growin' younger, gudeman,” replied Tibbie Tamson, with a heavy sigh, as she handed her husband his spectacles.

“Humph! wha said we were?” was the ungracious retort. “Keep yer gab steekit, gin ye dinna want to seem a born fule. God send ye mair sense, and me mair siller.”

Tibbie said no more. But as her poor old fingers tremblingly pursued their task of knitting Symie's thick woollen hoiss, or stockings, which kept his feet so cosy and warm when he worked early and late in his little mailing,note more than one tear trickled silently down her cheeks, and dropped upon her work.

But she was used to this cruel treatment. The

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day had been when she resented it, and bitter, angry words passed between the couple. But that was in her young and foolish days. Many years ago Tibbie had seen her mistake, and silently endured what she could not mend.

Not that Symie was a cruel, hard-hearted man, with no soft place in his soul for better and holier influences to find a germing ground. His farm stock was better cared for than those of any other mailer in Nethercleuch. The sight of any cruelty towards the brute creation made his blood boil. To all the world, save Tibbie, Symie was ready to do a kindness when it did not involve the expenditure of money. He was of that cheap philanthropy which expends itself in words rather than deeds.

In the village of Kittlebinkie, adjoining which his little mailing or farm, of some sixty acres, was situated, Symie was looked upon as an honest, straightforward man, as regards all the cardinal virtues of the Decalogue. No one was more scrupulous in the observance of religious ordinances, public and private. He was an elder in the Free Kirk, was held in high esteem by the minister, the Rev. John Muirhead. Nay, though Symie had what he called “a fair scunner at Eraustian Estaubleeshments,” the parish minister and he always passed a kindly word of greeting when they met, in which such an exchange of civilities as—

“It's a fine day, Mr. Thomson.”

“Ay, it's jist sae, Maister Thrawnthrapple, it's unco gude for the braird,”note—or, “for the lambin' ”—or, “it's fine dry weather for the hair'st,”note formed the staple of their intercourse.

  ― 171 ―

In a word, then, Symie Tamson of the Cleuch farm was a man of whom the tongue of popular report spoke well. If he was a little near, and counted his bawbees twice before parting with them, and never let a “saxpence go bang,” like the historic Scotsman in London, without getting an adequate quid pro quo for it, well! was not that an illustration of Scottish thrift and prudence? Avarice is a relative term, you know, largely dependent on national characteristics and idiosyncrasies.

But within the castle of his own home, Symie was a different man altogether. His bonhomie and jocularity became sardonic sarcasm and thin-veiled insult. His was one of those natures that are not improved by having yielding spirits associated with them. In such minds, submissiveness, in place of suggesting considerateness and kindness, engender tyranny and scarcely-disguised contempt. Had Tibbie possessed a stronger and more unyielding temperament, with a tongue savouring of the quality of Xanthippe's, in all probability Symie, receiving as good as he gave, would, many long years ago, have learned to bridle his unruly member, and his wife would have been a happy, contented woman. But poor Tibbie, after the first few wild, hysterical outbursts against the unjust reflections and bitter speeches of her husband, in an unfortunate moment read Paul's advice in the Epistle to the Ephesians—“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord,” in a sense far too literal, and from that moment her domestic martyrdom began. For forty-five years her long-drawn-out misery of uncongenial companionship had lasted.

Both of them were now within a few months of

  ― 172 ―
reaching the three-score-and-ten stagepost in the journey of life. Symie was still full of vigour, strong, active, and sinewy. His massive frame and brawny limbs had lost but little of their original power. His complexion still retained much of its youthful ruddiness and colour. Though the frost of the sixties had powdered his hair with grey, and his eyesight required some little help of a night to read over the news in the Courier, these were the sole traces the flight of the years had as yet left on him.

With Tibbie it was different. Time had dealt hardly with her, and worry still more unkindly. Her parchment-like face, though still retaining traces, under her invariably spotless mutch,note of her former comeliness, in the large, soft, black eyes, and delicately shapen, mobile mouth, nevertheless evinced the footsteps of Time in numberless crow's-feet and wrinkles round the eyes and across the cheeks, and at the base of the chin. Her elasticity of step had long disappeared. Her limbs were frail, and trembled as though with incipient palsy. Her frame was slightly bent, and her hair was white as the unsmirched snowdrift. From outward evidence, Tibbie would be guessed the elder of the two, though in truth Symie was her senior by over six months.

The diverse treatment his wife and he had received from Father Time was a favourite topic for expatiation with Symie, on which occasions he would stretch out his massive limbs to their full extent, and, pointing to poor Tibbie's bent, attenuated frame, would say—

“Hech, but ye're a puir, fushionless, deein' craytur, Tibbie, wuman,” whereupon Tibbie would smile and

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affect to laugh, while her heart was breaking over her husband's comparisons.

Here was a nature gifted with an infinite capacity for loving. But at every turn it had been cribbed, cabined, and confined within itself, and prevented from shooting its tendrils around her husband. Of love Symie had never known a trace in his youthful days. He imagined Tibbie would make him a good housewife, and he married her. A better wife and a more careful manager he could not have had, though he always grumbled on principle over her extravagance, lest she should grow careless. All her girlish dreams of delicious wedded happiness had long since passed away into the dull mist of the past, leaving her a broken-hearted woman, bound to an uncongenial companion. For many long years, she prayed night and morning that God would remove her out of her misery. Then she thought that was sinful, and prayed for patience to bear her cross. For one word of endearing encouragement she would have risked her life, but that word never was granted to her. Had Providence willed that her maternal instincts should have been gratified by the care and tendance of children, her heart might have expanded into all the glorious fruition of full womanly development. But of family Symie and she had none, and thus she dragged her ever-lengthening chain of sorrow on throughout the years—a lonely, heartbroken woman, with all the possibilities of good in her crushed out by the cruelty of indifference, which inflicts a deeper wound on the heart than blows.

But at the time our narrative opens, one gleam of sunshine had thrown itself athwart Tibbie's path.

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Symie's sister had died, leaving her only child, a little girl of some twelve years, to her brother's care. Symie gloomed and fretted, spoke of sending her to the “pairish,” and of the bad seasons he had experienced. Then it was that Tibbie, for the first and last time in her life, took an independent stand.

“Shame on ye, Symie Tamson, to speak o' the pairish for ane sae sibnote to ye as ye're ain sister's bairn. I tell 'ee, wee Beatie sall no gang to the pairish, though I hae to wark air and late for her masel'.”

Symie muttered something about a “toom hoose bein' better than a bad tenant,” but went out to “pit” his potatoes without making any further remark.

Presently little Beatie arrived, a pale, waxen-faced, dark-eyed child, preternaturally acute, and with a discretion far beyond her years. To the desolate heart of the poor orphan, Tibbie appeared in the light of an angel come from heaven to take the place of the mother she had lost. A mighty, absorbing affection presently sprang up in the little one's heart towards the kindly, affectionate, but broken-spirited old woman, who lavished on her all the pent-up wealth of maternal love for which she had been denied outlet or exercise on children of her own. Between the child and Tibbie a subtle bond of love was forged, which did much to soften the old woman's feelings towards life and its responsibilities. So deep was the love the child bore her new mother, that though she could not understand the full meaning of Symie's cutting speeches to his wife, a vague appreciation of their drift seemed to reach her young mind. Her flashing

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eyes and flushed cheeks on more than one occasion caused him to suppress the bitter words even when on his lips, so reproachful were the looks he received from the little maid. Kinder and more considerate by far was Symie to his niece than to his wife. But not a caress could Beatie be induced to receive from him had he spoken harshly to Tibbie in her presence.

The end of this domestic martyrdom, however, was very near. To many of the neighbours Symie's mode of treating his wife was known. Though they honoured the sturdy honesty of the man, they reprobated his cruelty towards a woman whose patient weakness won their admiration. Only one ventured to condole with her on the subject. The attempt was made but once.

“Mause Pairtrick,' said Tibbie indignantly, “ye mean weel, nae doot, and for that I winna be as hard on ye as I ocht to be: but dinna let me hear ye misca' ma gudeman in ma hearin' again, or you and me wull cuist oot. Let ilka ane mind their ain business. Ma gudeman an' me are weel eneuch.”

Her silent endurance under prolonged provocation increased the sympathy for her in the village among those who knew her story. But that had to sympathise in secret, for no one had a more pronounced contempt than she for “greetin' gabbies,” as she designated wives who carried their domestic sorrows out of doors.

A fine fresh October morning. The sun had just peeped over the eastern horizon, and was flooding the whole face of nature—mountain and meadow, wood and stream, valley and plain—with that joyous, sparkling effulgency of rich mellow light which renders

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sunrise a spectacle so infinitely exhilarating. Those leaves—well tanned to an autumnal brown—which the boisterous breath of the late equinoctial gales still left on the trees, were literally glistening under the kiss of the sun on their dewy surfaces. The birds, too, were hymning their morning orisons, as Symie stepped out on to the road in front of his cottage to take a breath of the morning air, while Tibbie was boiling the porridge.

A few paces from the door he found his old crony and neighbour, Jock Howieson, vigorously flogging a cart-horse, which jibbed at taking the brae leading into the village. Jock's horse was an obstinate brute, and its master's temper was none of the most placid.

Symie watched the struggle for a moment or two, then, as the strokes began to wax severe, he said, “I'm sayin', Jock, div'ee mind the words o' Solomon the son o' Dauvid, ‘The richteous man regairdeth the life o' his beast’; or, as Mathy Henry pits it, ‘The maircifu' man is maircifu' to his beast'?”

“Ay, man, is it sae? But I'll be bund, Solomon the son o' Dauvid niver had tae drive a bawsend meernote like auld Nance there, whilk wad bunk at ilka thorn bush i' the road. But I'm sayin', Symie, syne ye've gien me a bit word frae Solomon the son o' Dauvid, I'll just be drappin' ye anither orra yin frae the Apostle Paul to the Corunthins, ‘Let the husband render unto the wife due benevelence.' Symie Tamson, hae ye been daein' that a' yer life to Tibbie, ye're gudewife? I'm thinkin' I'll just be steppin' on, Symie; gee up, Bawsy.”

Symie stood as though rooted to the spot. Never

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before had his persistent carping and sneering conduct towards Tibbie been revealed to him in a light so morally odious and reprehensible. For years past, so thoroughly had sarcasm and cavilling become a part of his daily intercourse with Tibbie, that he had lost his sense of moral distinction with regard to it, and failed to realise there was anything out of the common in the perpetual snarls and growls wherewith he persecuted his unfortunate partner. He walked back to the house a humbled man. But as yet it was not so much the realisation of his sin which troubled him as the fact that it was common talk in the village.

Tibbie met him in the trance, her usual feeble, deprecating smile on her lips.

“Come yer wa'as in by, Symie, the parridge is dished, an' yer bicker's stannin' waitin'. Are ye no' ready?”

The custom of years, combined with the latent feeling of blind indignation at her for being the innocent cause of making him appear in the wrong, induced him to catch her up sharply, as usual.

“Humph, and whaur d'ye jalousenote I wad be stravaigin'note to at this oor o' the day? Women and weans are aye witless.”

Tibbie cowered under the rebuke, but it was wee Beatie who confronted Symie as he moved towards the kitchen table, and, with flashing eyes, thus addressed him—

“Uncle Symie, what for d'ye no' love God?”

“No' love God? the lassie's in a creel Wha tauld ye that, ma dawtie? I div love God.”

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“Weel, then, the Bible maun be wrang. For the Bible says in ma tex', ‘By this sall a' men know that ye are My disciples if ye love ane anither.”'

“Weel, lassie, what aboot it?”

“Uncle Symie, ye dinna love Auntie Tibbie, or ye wadna speak to her the gait ye div; an' gin ye dinna love her, ye canna love God, for she's yer neeber, an' yer bidden love yer neeber as yersel'.”

Symie started. A sharp answer to the little logician seemed on the tip of his tongue. But he did nothing more than pat her on the head, and remarked in a strange, constrained tone: “God gie ye grace wi' yer tongue, lass, for He's made it glegnote eneuch.”

After supping a few spoonfuls of porridge and milk, he pushed the plate away, and signed Tibbie to give him a cup of tea. But he only sipped about one half its contents, and then, rising, left the room, muttering something about “A slow haund maks a sober fortin.”

Tibbie had not broken her fast. The words of the child had at first filled her with a keen, fierce joy, succeeded, however, by an aching dread lest Symie should in his harshness visit wee Beatie's protest on herself by sending her away. Tibbie felt that then the light of her life would quite go out.

“O, ma dawtie,” she cried, “never heed him. It's dist his way; gie intil 'm, dearie, or maybe he micht pairt us.”

“Na, na, auntie, I'll gie intil nane o' him. He's aye prayin' to God to saften oor hard an' stoney hairts, an' to gie us hairts o' flesh. Wow! but the Cleuch millstane is saft tae his hairt.”

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Her aunt only sorrowfully shook her head. All that morning Tibbie went about her work with a dull feeling of terror gnawing at her heartstrings. Presently, as she was busy preparing dinner against Symie's return, she was startled by a loud knock at the front entrance—a most unusual occurrence. She hurried through the trance and threw open the door. Mr. Muirhead, the Free Kirk minister, stood without.

“C'wae in by, sir; the gudeman's no' at hame, but he winna be lang, I'm thinkin'.”

“Ah, my dear Mrs. Thomson—ahem—it's on his account—ahem—I'm here. I am very sorry——”.

“Gudesakes, minister, whatten's wrang, what's cam' owre the gudeman? Is he deid—O tell me, is he deid?”

“O no, it's not so bad as that, Mrs. Thomson, but he received a bad shock of paralysis while working on the farm. Fortunately he was seen to fall by the inmates of Robert Dowie's cottage; and they ran over to him. They are bringing him home now. Ah, here they are, I see!”

Tibbie waited to hear no more. As fast as her poor old limbs would carry her, she hobbled out to meet the sad procession that was coming up the little garden.

Symie was lying helpless on the improvised stretcher. The only signs of life left in him were his eyes, which moved restlessly from side to side. Fortunately his speech was but little affected, and when Tibbie met the bearers, the tears streaming down her cheeks, Symie remarked, with a sort of dreary, hopeless attempt at jocularity—

“Hech, Tibbie, ma wuman, we'll be a bonny pair

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o' bauchles, you an' me, noo. Tak' me in by, lads, the gudewife wull show'ee the road.”

Tenderly and gently Symie Thomson was undressed and laid upon the bed from which he was never to rise. Then the doctor made his examination, during which his looks became increasingly grave. Finally he shook his head mournfully, and taking Tibbie by the hand, led her from the room.

“Eh, wow, doctor, I can jalouse yer news frae yer face; ma gudeman's days o' acteevity are owre.”

“Even so, Mrs. Thomson; I cannot give you any hope it will ever be otherwise.”

“Weel, weel, ‘the Lord gave an' the Lord hath ta'en awa'; blessed be the name of the Lord,”' said the old woman, as, amid her streaming tears, a sad sweet smile broke through, like April sunshine amid April showers. “It's no' a' sorrow, sir; na, na! God be thankit his life's been spared to me.” Dr. Bolus turned hastily away to hide the suspicious moisture that was dimming his eyes.

And so their friends left them to begin that strange new life, wherein Tibbie, the frail one, was to undertake the active oversight of the farm, and Symie, the strong man who boasted of his strength, had to lie helpless, hand and foot alike, and inclined to rail bitterly against God's mysterious providence.

For some days he was very hard to live with. Of a truth, it seemed as though he were desirous of compensating for the enforced idleness of his limbs by the bitterness and venom of his speech. Nothing, seemingly, could be done correctly for him. Again and again Tibbie had to endure such speeches as—

“Hech me, ye're a' jist ettlin' to worry me. Hae ye

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ony brains ava'? Neist to nae wife a gude ane's best, but that's no' ma lot. Ay, wives maun be had, be they gude or bad, but the bad anes are like a hunner to yin.”

But though her tears fell plentifully enough in secret, Tibbie never wavered in her determination to keep a bright face and a stout heart when in the presence of her husband. His bitterest speeches only extorted from her a sweeter smile, and the words—

“Wheesht ye noo, ma dear, dinna fash yersel', an' I'll dae better neist time.”

She engaged a man to work on the little farm, and making a virtue of a necessity, she developed traits of business, prudence, and foresight, that even astonished her husband, though he never bestowed on her that one word of praise and affection for which her soul hungered. Day by day she went over all the accounts with him, relating what she was doing, and humouring him in the idea he was still managing the farm.

Wee Beatie it was who again opened her uncle's eyes to the hidden treasure he possessed in his dear old wife. One day Symie called Tibbie, but no answer was returned. Again he called, and Beatie told him that auntie was having a sleep.

“Sleepin' in the broad daylicht! ma certie, that's the gait to maunage a fairm! Nae wonner a's ga'an to rack an' ruin. Eh, wow, but women are as menseless as a tinkler's messan.note Ou, aye, a sillerless man gangs fast through the mercat, and, faith, we'll no' be lang afore we're i' that state' Sleepin' i' the daytime! Gudesakes!”

“Uncle Symie, ye're dist an auld haverel, an' div

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ye think ilka body's as bad as yersel, an' as scodgienote?”

“Beatie, whatten are 'ee mintin at,” said Symie angrily.

“Jist this, that puir auntie disna get to her bed a' nicht wi' workin' to keep the fairm ga'an. A' the kirnin', an' the bakin', an' the sautin', an' the smokin', she does through the nicht, sae that she can hae the hale day to spend wi' ye. Eh, wow, man, but ye're a puir, feckless, fushionless, discomfisht body, lying there, no' able to rax out yer ain elbuck, an' girnin' and grizlin' at yer puir wife, that's fashin' hersel' intil her grave aboot ye. What gars ye be sae snar-gabbetnote to her, that wad gie her life for ye?”

“Beatie, ma dawtie, is that sae? It canna be, it canna be!” said Symie in an anxious tone. “Ma puir Tibbie. Yer sure it's true noo, Beatie lass? Does Tibbie wark a' nicht? God forgie me, God forgie me; but yer sure it's true, wee Beatie?”

“Losh, uncle, canna ye use yer ain een an' yer ain lugs?”

Symie said no more. Presumably he did use “his ain een and his ain lugs” that night when poor Tibbie imagined he was asleep. Be that as it may, on the following day, after work was over, Symie called her. His tone was more kindly and gentle than it had ever been before. Yet Tibbie had been repressed and downtrodden so long that she actually trembled and shook when she entered his presence.

“Did ye ca' me, Symie?”

“Ay, Tibbie lass. I'm fain to hae a bit crack wi' ye aboot some orra things.”

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“Weel, Symie, say awa'.” Poor Tibbie could scarcely speak with anxiety.

“Tibbie, ma dawtie, ye hae been the best o' wives to me, an Heeven kens I've no' been what I suld to ye; far frae it. I'll no' be lang wi' ye noo tae fash ye.”

The long expected words of endearment had come at last, and their effect, as they fell upon her weary, sorrow-burdened spirit, was like dew upon a dry, parched land. Her whole nature seemed to revive under it. The long distant days of their courtship seemed restored. Timidly she took his withered, lifeless hand in hers, and feebly fondled and caressed it. But as yet she spoke not.

“Ah, Tibbie wuman, had I kenned a' I ken noo, what years o' blessed happiness we micht hae had! But it wusna to be, Tibbie lass. Wull ye forgie me for a' ma sins o' omission and commission; for ma bad, bitter tongue, an' ma blin'ness to the gudeness o' the best o' wives?”

But Tibbie was on her knees by his bedside, sobbing like a child.

“Symie, dinna speak like that, ye'll brak ma hairt; ye've aye been a gude, kind husband tae me,”

“Na, na, Tibbie, jist the contr'ary lass, jist the contr'ary; but, oh, I'm wae for't a' noo! Gie me a kiss lass; it's lang syne we had oor last.”

For the first time for a period exceeding by many years a quarter of a century, Tibbie's withered, aged lips were laid against those of her partner in a kiss of love. The old woman's eyes, as they rested on her husband, seemed to glow with a beautiful love-light. All the anxious dread, and the look they used to have as of a hunted hare, had left them. A pure, holy

  ― 184 ―
radiance, the reflex of the peace that reigned within her soul, shone from them. Her days of mourning were ended.

“Eh, Tibbie lass, but it's like auld days this, when I cam' a-coortin' ye. We'll hae some twa or three thegither yet, afore we pairt, jist to pree the joy we micht hae had a' through, gin it hadna been for ma wicked tongue. Read me a bit verse frae the ‘Auld Buke,' lass; the nicht's closin' in, an' I'm kind o' tired. But the morn's a noo day, an' we'll hae oor crack oot then.”

“Whaur wull I read, Symie?”

“Read us aboot the Noo Jerusalem, lass, an' the comin' o' the Maister, in the hinner en' o' the Revelations. Surely I come quickly; Amen; even sae, come Lord Jesus.”

The old woman lit her lamp, and Symie composed himself to listen. Tibbie's voice was singularly musical and soothing, and there was little wonder that ere long a tear or two forced themselves through the closed lashes of Symie's eyes as she detailed the glories of that world he was so soon to see. When she reached the seventeenth verse and read, “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come: and let him that heareth, say Come: and let him that is athirst, Come, and whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely,” she heard her husband heave a gentle sigh. Tibbie stopped and looked up, then gently closed the book and knelt by the bedside. Already the morning of the new day had dawned for him. Symie Tamson had responded to the invitation of his Lord, and had passed into the presence of “The Maister!”