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Miss McGregor

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Sketch on page 160 of 'Miss McGregor'

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SHE lived with a bachelor brother in a slab house about a mile and a half distant from our home. It was however such a wet flat that lay between the two houses, that going to Miss McGregor's was quite an adventure. But for all that my mother, accompanied by some of us young ones, often presented herself at the wide doorway of the McGregor establishment. There were attractions at that house.…But first of all a word as to the way thither. That portion of the valley as already suggested had received more than a fair share of the soakage of the hills, and beside the ordinary rank growth of that region there were in that part of it several large permanent swamps where flourished rushes and tussocks of immense size. Duckweed, redshank and “bottle washers” throve about the shallows, and waterfowl might always be seen (or at least heard) among those ambushes. Fallen trees with half-submerged limbs sprawled in the tangles from which a strange dank smell arose.

A frog concert party was always in session somewhere in the swamps, and right weird music it made. There was every known kind of frog in that jungle, and all vocal. As well, each frog played some sort of instrument, mostly something stringed and twangy, though there were some basses and drums as well, and thin-toned contraptions, very shrill and teetery—specially used, I suspect, by the tadpoles. We liked to linger about that place, and to listen to the strange sounds on our way to Miss McGregor's, though always a little jumpy for it was well known that a bunyip had now and then been seen in the most frog-haunted part of this marsh.

Cranes and shags—for some reason we called these last Moscovy Ducks—were everlastingly to be seen there, the

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cranes elegantly balanced upon one leg, thoughtful among the red-shanks, their legs aptly mimicking the colour of the surroundings; the shags, foul and unfriendly, knowing themselves Pariahs, lurking farther afield.

Here and there a black stump or a half-charred tussock showed where Mr. McGregor had been trying to carry his clearing operations into the very fastnesses of the wilderness. But the marsh repulsed; it was many years after the rest of his flats had been broken into sweetening furrows, before these swampy patches ceased to be the home of aquatic birds, beasts and plants.

The track, such as it was that led to the McGregors', skirted this quaggy place, but in the winter time the swamps were wont to spread, and to impinge upon the path until what had been dry land was treacherous quagmire. How we used to leap from tussock to tussock, now and then mistaking a duck-weeded surface of water for solid ground, and getting sadly messed in consequence! I remember my mother once saying to Miss McGregor after having made one of these perilous passages to the house beyond the swamps, that the thing was a test of friendship, and Miss McGregor agreeing that it was, for she often braved wet feet and bedraggled skirts to visit us.

The McGregor house was approached by a fine orchard, culminating in a shrubbery that extended to the wide-portalled door. The orchard always seemed to have very attractive fruit upon its trees. The McGregors' apples and pears hung late, and amid naked branches I have seen quinces like incandescent bowls aloft in the twilight of an autumn evening. “Never gather your pip fruit till the frosts begin,” Mr. McGregor used to say. Had he been deliberately philanthropic to the jays and leatherheads of the nearby ranges he could not have conceived a more hospitable watchword. As one opened the rickety gate that led to the orchard, cries from bird thieves went up, and insolent yellow eyes reproached half fearfully the interrupters of a spread feast.

The shrubbery had in it all sweet-smelling things, and as it seemed they were always a-bloom. Laburnums yellow as

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the quinces, elderberry trees with their flowers of sickly aroma, currant bushes, lilacs, oak-leafed geraniums, sweet-scented verbenas, and about the feet of these, fox gloves, sweet williams, and shy-eyed pansies and hearts-ease, and under a native musk bush, and a bold laurelstina, umbrella'd among their own leaves for still greater retirement, grew English violets. Among, and over the larger shrubs, scrambling to reach door and window lintel, were honey-suckle and periwinkle—the last, the only thing there of unpleasant odour, but not so till one crushed a leaf. What a shrubbery that was! My aunt and my mother loved to take a sprig of the currant bush home with them to be used as an adjunct to the tea brew, and now and then Miss McGregor supplied them also with some laurel leaves, these I think were used to flavour blancmange.

The wide-portalled door was consistently wide open, so wide then was the space from post to post that an elephant might have entered the room beyond it without grazing a flank, and so high it was too that a giraffe going in might have kept his head raised. Suchlike freakish imaginings as to the possible uses to which that doorway could be put, came sometimes to Claribel and me. Indeed we were as riotous in our fancies about that as the vegetation without was in its growth. Dick once pertinently inquired of Miss McGregor why they had such a wide door. The question was ignored by our hostess who was of the period and the belief that rude little boys should in that way be snubbed. But for all that the thither side of the wide door held hospitality of a comprehensive kind.

The McGregors were Edinburgh folk, and Edinburgh folk under whatsoever alien skies fate may cast their later lot, remain Edinburgh folk. Heart, memory, and tongue are loyal to Auld Reekie. I have, through my father's race something of the Scot in my blood, but definitely I trace my love for Scotland, its history and traditions from my early associations with the McGregors, especially with Miss McGregor.

She loved to pour forth to a sympathetic audience her memories, and the wealth of lore she possessed about the old

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grey town—and beyond it. Of the history of her land she discoursed with fervour, and with a decided viewpoint. The foundations of the lady's being had been laid down in Presbyterianism. Had not her father been an elder of one of the Edinburgh kirks—I'm ashamed to have forgotten what kirk it was, so well coached in the fact as I have been.

Miss McGregor had no more patience with “wrong viewpoints” than had Jenny Geddes. The “historic mile” she had footed along almost daily in her girlhood, and it had steeped its influences deep. The dour John Knox was a gospel in himself, but so subtly fashioned, and so varied are the strands that make up the most soberly-knit soul, as dearly held in Miss McGregor's heart was Bonnie Prince Charlie; Mary Queen of Scots was a beatification rather than a woman, though some more critical of that unfortunate queen, have found a very human and faulty side to her.

Sir Walter, man and writer! How much poorer I should have been had I gathered my knowledge of and feeling for that great man from a less panegyrical source! Miss McGregor's rhapsodical lips gave the plus—the romance. And with that did she not also give us the soul of the bonnie hills of Highland and of Lowland? The statue in Princes' Street, Arthur Seat, the Castle; all these things I saw with the eye of a conducted imagination at Miss McGregor's fireside full thirty-five years before my physical eyes actually rested upon them.

And Burns? Reverence there ran to idolatry. Miss McGregor was not alone in that; never have I known a sober Scot who could talk of the Lad of Ayr and remain sober. We had a long loan from the house of the wide door of a marginated copy of the “Poems.” Hard reading for a small Australian even when thus helped. On the whole we preferred to hear Miss McGregor's rendering with spoken annotations. But for all that the loan volume gave us a bigger Burns than we had known, for we found that Miss McGregor had Bowdlerised her idol. Claribel and Dick giggled over the poem about the lady's bonnet in church, and “Holy Willie's Prayer” had an unholy fascination for me. My mother's mere Englishness

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was disposed to make her wonder that a lady of Miss McGregor's circumspect mental and spiritual port, should possess a book that made so light as that one did of the over-indulgence in malted liquors. But such a criticism she dared not utter.

“Good Words” in the brick-red covers of the monthly parts, grew year by year more bulky on the shelves in the McGregor parlour. They had begun to grow there from the date of the McGregors' arrival in the district, indeed the earlier bundles dated from the time of their leaving Scotland. All neatly sorted, and arranged in piles on the shelves, read, conned, and remembered! Those sacred pages, what good things they contained; what solid things too. “Sermons preached before the Queen at Balmoral” by the editors (in turn), Drs. Norman and Donald McLeod. How dignified in tone, how well shapen (rather unreadable nevertheless to a young Sassenach (born south). One skipped through those pages of the beloved magazine, wondering somewhat at the deference paid by the Almighty (through the lips of his servants) to Good Queen Victoria. Truly an anthropomorphic Deity.

But there were the things that we revelled in between the covers of the books borne home along the swampy track from time to time. Many a fine story, remembered to this day by some of us, many a travel article that thrilled in an age when all the world of men did not run about this globe of ours. Ah, so many wonderful tours we stay-at-homes took while gathered about our own hearthrug!

Miss McGregor was an established “old maid,” one of the few in that district of the (then) supposedly forlorn sisterhood. She must have been nearly forty when we first knew her, an age which from the low altitude of our own years seemed quite old. I imagine that Miss McGregor had never been a beauty; her features were large and roughly-made, her complexion swarthy, and she was stout and squat of figure. Her disposition was assuredly pleasanter than her face, or she would not have been so popular with us.… An “old maid”: but Jack found his Jill.

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The minister visiting at our house one afternoon threw a bomb. He had just come from uniting Miss McGregor in Holy Matrimony to a “confirmed bachelor” who lived farther up the valley. No one had suspected the romance that was taking place under our very eyes; chiefly no doubt because wooer and wooed were so “unsuspectable.” He was a man of retiring disposition, and of few words; when he spoke it was of last year's crops, or of the prospects for the next season's. Women he had seemed to avoid. I remember once when he was helping with our harvest, this man of Miss McGregor's had hurt a finger, and rather than submit to my mother binding it up, his shyness had caused him to go for days with a dirty and ensanguined rag about the injury. An unpropitious pair for Cupid, yet he (if it were not propinquity—who surely is an entity too) flung the noose about them.

No wonder that the minister's bomb reverberated along the valley; the news surprised us all, and according to our years and our outlook, we debated it. Claribel and I knew of nothing in “Lady Revelstone's Lovers,” or in “The Handsome Heir of Gilderdane” (our favourite books of the hour) that could throw any light as to how this thing had occurred. Romance, we were discovering, assumes many and strange forms.

At any rate Miss McGregor was no longer Miss McGregor, though it was some time before her new name tripped featly from people's lips. Indeed my aunt seemed strangely unable to un-McGregor the lady, she was like the folk in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” to whom Miss Hazy always remained Miss Hazy despite the addition of a husband. But unlike the romance in Mrs. Hegan Rice's story, Miss McGregor's matrimonial venture was a success. If the affair lacked some of the elements that our youthful sentimentality demanded should accompany such matters, the marriage of our friend had many blessings attending it—a good home was, I know, one asset. And that home had a wide door too, wide enough at least to allow the passage through it of her old friends. And to “Miss McGregor's” new home we went, and continued

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to bear away from her keeping, bundles of the brick-red covered “Good Words” that she had taken there with her.

Time, and wifely influences, humanised her unsocial mate, making him in later years our friend too. He never became a talker, but better than that he was a good listener to his wife's favourite themes. On occasions I have been present when there was discourse at his fireside of Scott, of Bur-rns (how she rolled the “r”) of Prince Charlie, or of John Knox. At such times I have observed a quiet twinkle in his eye, a humorous smile playing over his definitely English features.