There was an auld creature that used to dander aboot the farm, at orra times when it pleased his fancy; a man sae ancient that naebody richtly kent his age, an' he had forgotten't himsel'. The saucy weans, that petted an' angered him by turns, ca'd him Jock-o-Noah; for they said he had been in the Ark at the time o' the Flood, an' whiles they would spcer at him—“What for didna the corbie come hame?” He was a wee bit gane in the heid, an' he just made the maist o't. It was equal till an annuity for him. On the strength o' hein’ accounted a haveril, he was fed an' clad a' the year round, his only occupation bein' to wander frae toun till roun, doing just as much, or as little as he had a mind for. But they that set him up for bein' either datt or donnart made a fule's bargain o't. He was douce eneuch to ken that his best policy was to play the pairt o' a natural. Travellers say that page 30 monkeys winna speak for fear they should be made to work; and Jock Howieson was muckle o' the same mind.
Of course Jock was sure to pit in an appearance, as the lawyers say, when ony merrymakin' was on; sae we were na astonished to see him schauchlin up the glen at hair'st time, wi his lang white hair fleein' ahint like the tail o' a comet. Jock never wore a bonnet on his head. Summer or winter, rain or shine, he aye went barcheaded. He didna come till the leadin'-in had commenced, an' then he was thoroughly happy, wi' a whip in his hand, seein' the horses wark while he drave.
When he first set een on Mr. Renwick I thocht he had gane clean dementit. He peered intil the face o' our guest wi' great pertinacity, restin' his hands on his knees, an' screwin’ his mou intil a sma' “O.” Mr. Renwick only laughed at this impudent behaviour; but what gart me jump was his sayin—“Weel, Jock; what ails ye noo?”
Ye mind he hadna been tauld Jock's name, but it's sic a common one that may be he guessed it. That was my thocht at the time. But Jock turned on his heel wi' a maist uncanny whistle an' burst intil a violent fit o' laughin'. Then he took anither inspection o' Mr. Renwick. ‘Mph! mph!“—quo he—“Ishmael's no kent o' Isaac; but the fule kens him fine. Gie's your loof, man.”
Mr. Renwick held out his hand without speakin.’ an' this strange conduct o' Jock was set down to his foolishness. But I wasna o' that mind; for I observed a glint o' mutual understandin' flash atween thae twa, page 31 which seemed to betoken auld acquaintance. I was confirmed in my thocht when, sune after, I chanced on them holding close confab at the byre-door. Now I was aye of an inquiring turn, which craikin' folk misca'd curiosity. But ‘they that dinna spier, lose the chance o' gainin’ lear,’ as the proverb pits it. Sae when I got Jock alone, I inquired at him—’ Did he ken onything aboot the stranger body?'
“Whisht!”—cried Jock, pittin' his finger till his lip, an' lookin’ a' round as if he was charged wi' some tremendous secret—“Wad ye no lat on till onybody if I tell't ye?”
I promised I wadna.—“Aye,” quo he, “ye say sae noo ye dinna ken. But will ye tak yer aith on't?”—I said “No.” I wadna swear ony oath, but I would gie him my honest word.
“Pech!”—says Jock. “The bit word o' a tawpie lassie! That's fine surety. Weel, say ‘sure's death’ an' I'll just try ye for ance.”
An’ then wi' much solemnity in his wizened auld countenance, after I had said the words, he bent owre me and whispered—“The corbie's come hame at last. Eh! but he's been lang fleein' to and fro, seekin' rest for the sole o' his fit. But he's back noo, an' mair he's fetched the olive branch in his mon'.” An' wi’ that he hirpled awa as fast as his schauchlin legs wad take him.
Weel this wasna muckle information; sae I tauld Maggie what I had observed, an' she tried her hand wi' him. But she fared no better than mysel. To a' her inquiries he only answered back wi' his tule's page 32 havers. “Aiblins its bonnie Prince Charlie,” quo he. “Eh, sirs! wadna that be gran'?”
“Noo, Jock,” said Mistress Meg, in her maist gracious manner, “there's braw sheep's heid an' haggis for the hair'st supper, an' if ye just gie me a hint o' what ye ken aboot Maister Renwick, I'll see ye hae a twa-fauld helpin'.”
But Jock brak out in ane o' his sangs:—
“Come ben the house, guidman,” she cried,
“An’ sit ye doun alang wi' me;”
He wadna frae the ingle-neuk,
But snowkit aye the puddin' bree.
Maggie was sair vexed at bein' pit aff in sic a daft-like way. An' as temptation had nae effect on him, she tried the operation o' anither course.—” Gin ye dinna dae as I bid ye, ye'll get neither heid nor haggis.”
The fule-body went on wi' his sang:—
Up spak' the guidwife tae the carle—
“Sin’ ye will no conform wi' me,
I'll tak the puddins till mysel',
An’ ye shall hae the puddin' bree.”
“I'll gie ye puddin' bree, ye donnart auld deevil,” quo Maggie, dashing a tinnie o' no owre clean water intil his face. Jock loupit awa, till he pit a safe distance atween himsel' and ony mair o' the same commodity. When he turned round again his face was richtdown awsome wi' rage.
“Sure's death, ye'll be the waur o' that, Mistress Maggie,” he skirled oot, in a voice shakin' wi’ wrath. “Dae ye ken o' the auld wife's mischance?”
“Nae, nae, guidwife, ye shall na sac;”
“Guidman, ye're but a sumph,” quo she;
He rax'd the puddius oot the pat,
An’ bade her sup the puddin'-bree.
“Min’ yer ain ganey haggis disna flee awa' up the lum.”
That back-spang gave puir Maggie a sair fricht. She was sae feart the half-witted body would play some deil's wark wi' the haggis, that I dinna think she had ony peace o' mind, night or day, till she had it fairly placed afore the laird at the hair'st supper. Joek girned as he sat at the far end o' the table, next the door, watching her anxious face. The haggis was a' richt, but I misdoubted Jock had ta'en some ither way o' payin’ her back for the dirty water she had washed his face wi'. An' sae he had. Maggie had thocht to show off her housewifely qualities before Robin Grant, who was there as behoved him, by makin' some fruit pies an' puddings for the supper. One o' the pies was made wi' grosets,* which she had been at great trouble to preserve; an', by her special direction, it was set afore her to serve. When the pies came in, Jock got up frae his seat, an' sidled awa towards the door. Sure eneuch, when Meg opened her famous pie, the birds didna begin to sing, but twa big puddocks happit out, an' at the same time Jock happit out o' the door, an' awa wi' a mockin' laugh that proclaimed him the faither o' the mischievous pliskie. In some way o' his ain he had gotten at the pie, an' liftin the pastry, had scoopit out the grosets an' pit the puddocks in their place. Jock didna make his appearance for a long while after this exploit, but the story o' Meg's puddock-pie spread far an' wide.page 34
I should say here that we lassies made experiment o' our faither to ken who was Mr. Renwick. Ony-thing in the shape o' mystery was a thing unkent in our quiet hame-life; and we were unco pit aboot at having such a strange guest in the house. But the laird turned on us wi' ‘a text. “‘There's a time for a' things under the sun'”, quo he; “‘a time for silence, an' a time to speak.’ An' this is no a time to fash yersels about things ye canna understand. Maybe ye'll ken owre sune.”
He spak' in such a solemn way that we kent right well it wadna be prudent to provoke his anger by speering ony mair aboot the matter.
“For a' that,”—quo Maggie,—“I wish he was awa. The place has na been the same sin' he first set foot intil't.”
This was nae mair than the honest truth; for though none could say a wrong word o' Mr Renwick, there had been a dourness perceptible in my faither's manner of late which was quite out o' the common.