The Antiquary, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 15

Be this letter delivered with haste — haste — post-haste!

Ride, villain, ride — for thy life — for thy life — for thy life.

Ancient Indorsation of Letters of Importance.

Leaving Mr. Oldbuck and his friend to enjoy their hard bargain of fish, we beg leave to transport the reader to the back-parlour of the post-master’s house at Fairport, where his wife, he himself being absent, was employed in assorting for delivery the letters which had come by the Edinburgh post. This is very often in country towns the period of the day when gossips find it particularly agreeable to call on the man or woman of letters, in order, from the outside of the epistles, and, if they are not belied, occasionally from the inside also, to amuse themselves with gleaning information, or forming conjectures about the correspondence and affairs of their neighbours. Two females of this description were, at the time we mention, assisting, or impeding, Mrs. Mailsetter in her official duty.

“Eh, preserve us, sirs!” said the butcher’s wife, “there’s ten — eleven — twall letters to Tennant and Co. — thae folk do mair business than a’ the rest o’ the burgh.”

“Ay; but see, lass,” answered the baker’s lady, “there’s twa o’ them faulded unco square, and sealed at the tae side — I doubt there will be protested bills in them.”

“Is there ony letters come yet for Jenny Caxon?” inquired the woman of joints and giblets; “the lieutenant’s been awa three weeks.”

“Just ane on Tuesday was a week,” answered the dame of letters.

“Wast a ship-letter?” asked the Fornerina.

“In troth wast.”

“It wad be frae the lieutenant then,” replied the mistress of the rolls, somewhat disappointed —“I never thought he wad hae lookit ower his shouther after her.”

“Od, here’s another,” quoth Mrs. Mailsetter. “A ship-letter — post-mark, Sunderland.” All rushed to seize it. —“Na, na, leddies,” said Mrs. Mailsetter, interfering; “I hae had eneugh o’ that wark — Ken ye that Mr. Mailsetter got an unco rebuke frae the secretary at Edinburgh, for a complaint that was made about the letter of Aily Bisset’s that ye opened, Mrs. Shortcake?”

“Me opened!” answered the spouse of the chief baker of Fairport; “ye ken yoursell, madam, it just cam open o’ free will in my hand — what could I help it? — folk suld seal wi’ better wax.”

“Weel I wot that’s true, too,” said Mrs. Mailsetter, who kept a shop of small wares, “and we have got some that I can honestly recommend, if ye ken onybody wanting it. But the short and the lang o’t is, that we’ll lose the place gin there’s ony mair complaints o’ the kind.”

“Hout, lass — the provost will take care o’ that.”

“Na, na, I’ll neither trust to provost nor bailier” said the postmistress — “but I wad aye be obliging and neighbourly, and I’m no again your looking at the outside of a letter neither — See, the seal has an anchor on’t — he’s done’t wi’ ane o’ his buttons, I’m thinking.”

“Show me! show me!” quoth the wives of the chief butcher and chief baker; and threw themselves on the supposed love-letter, like the weird sisters in Macbeth upon the pilot’s thumb, with curiosity as eager and scarcely less malignant. Mrs. Heukbane was a tall woman — she held the precious epistle up between her eyes and the window. Mrs. Shortcake, a little squat personage, strained and stood on tiptoe to have her share of the investigation.

“Ay, it’s frae him, sure eneugh,” said the butcher’s lady; —“I can read Richard Taffril on the corner, and it’s written, like John Thomson’s wallet, frae end to end.”

“Haud it lower down, madam,” exclaimed Mrs. Shortcake, in a tone above the prudential whisper which their occupation required —“haud it lower down — Div ye think naebody can read hand o’ writ but yoursell?”

“Whist, whist, sirs, for God’s sake!” said Mrs. Mailsetter, “there’s somebody in the shop,”— then aloud —“Look to the customers, Baby!”— Baby answered from without in a shrill tone —“It’s naebody but Jenny Caxon, ma’am, to see if there’s ony letters to her.”

“Tell her,” said the faithful postmistress, winking to her compeers, “to come back the morn at ten o’clock, and I’ll let her ken — we havena had time to sort the mail letters yet — she’s aye in sic a hurry, as if her letters were o’ mair consequence than the best merchant’s o’ the town.”

Poor Jenny, a girl of uncommon beauty and modesty, could only draw her cloak about her to hide the sigh of disappointment and return meekly home to endure for another night the sickness of the heart occasioned by hope delayed.

“There’s something about a needle and a pole,” said Mrs. Shortcake, to whom her taller rival in gossiping had at length yielded a peep at the subject of their curiosity.

“Now, that’s downright shamefu’,” said Mrs. Heukbane, “to scorn the poor silly gait of a lassie after he’s keepit company wi’ her sae lang, and had his will o’ her, as I make nae doubt he has.”

“It’s but ower muckle to be doubted,” echoed Mrs. Shortcake; —“to cast up to her that her father’s a barber and has a pole at his door, and that she’s but a manty-maker hersell! Hout fy for shame!”

“Hout tout, leddies,” cried Mrs. Mailsetter, “ye’re clean wrang — It’s a line out o’ ane o’ his sailors’ sangs that I have heard him sing, about being true like the needle to the pole.”

“Weel, weel, I wish it may be sae,” said the charitable Dame Heukbane — “but it disna look weel for a lassie like her to keep up a correspondence wi’ ane o’ the king’s officers.”

“I’m no denying that,” said Mrs. Mailsetter; “but it’s a great advantage to the revenue of the post-office thae love-letters. See, here’s five or six letters to Sir Arthur Wardour — maist o’ them sealed wi’ wafers, and no wi’ wax. There will be a downcome, there, believe me.”

“Ay; they will be business letters, and no frae ony o’ his grand friends, that seals wi’ their coats of arms, as they ca’ them,” said Mrs. Heukbane; —“pride will hae a fa’— he hasna settled his account wi’ my gudeman, the deacon, for this twalmonth — he’s but slink, I doubt.”

“Nor wi’ huz for sax months,” echoed Mrs. Shortcake —“He’s but a brunt crust.”

“There’s a letter,” interrupted the trusty postmistress, “from his son, the captain, I’m thinking — the seal has the same things wi’ the Knockwinnock carriage. He’ll be coming hame to see what he can save out o’ the fire.”

The baronet thus dismissed, they took up the esquire —“Twa letters for Monkbarns — they’re frae some o’ his learned friends now; see sae close as they’re written, down to the very seal — and a’ to save sending a double letter — that’s just like Monkbarns himsell. When he gets a frank he fills it up exact to the weight of an unce, that a carvy-seed would sink the scale — but he’s neer a grain abune it. Weel I wot I wad be broken if I were to gie sic weight to the folk that come to buy our pepper and brimstone, and suchlike sweetmeats.”

“He’s a shabby body the laird o’ Monkbarns,” said Mrs. Heukbane; “he’ll make as muckle about buying a forequarter o’ lamb in August as about a back sey o’ beef. Let’s taste another drop of the sinning” (perhaps she meant cinnamon) “waters, Mrs. Mailsetter, my dear. Ah, lasses! an ye had kend his brother as I did — mony a time he wad slip in to see me wi’ a brace o’ wild deukes in his pouch, when my first gudeman was awa at the Falkirk tryst — weel, weel — we’se no speak o’ that e’enow.”

“I winna say ony ill o’this Monkbarns,” said Mrs. Shortcake; “his brother neer brought me ony wild-deukes, and this is a douce honest man; we serve the family wi’ bread, and he settles wi’ huz ilka week — only he was in an unco kippage when we sent him a book instead o’ the nick-sticks,14 whilk, he said, were the true ancient way o’ counting between tradesmen and customers; and sae they are, nae doubt.”

“But look here, lasses,” interrupted Mrs. Mailsetter, “here’s a sight for sair e’en! What wad ye gie to ken what’s in the inside o’ this letter? This is new corn — I haena seen the like o’ this — For William Lovel, Esquire, at Mrs. Hadoway’s, High Street, Fairport, by Edinburgh, N. B. This is just the second letter he has had since he was here.”

“Lord’s sake, let’s see, lass! — Lord’s sake, let’s see! — that’s him that the hale town kens naething about — and a weel-fa’ard lad he is; let’s see, let’s see!” Thus ejaculated the two worthy representatives of mother Eve.

“Na, na, sirs,” exclaimed Mrs. Mailsetter; “haud awa — bide aff, I tell you; this is nane o’ your fourpenny cuts that we might make up the value to the post-office amang ourselves if ony mischance befell it; — the postage is five-and-twenty shillings — and here’s an order frae the Secretary to forward it to the young gentleman by express, if he’s no at hame. Na, na, sirs, bide aff; — this maunna be roughly guided.”

“But just let’s look at the outside o’t, woman.”

Nothing could be gathered from the outside, except remarks on the various properties which philosophers ascribe to matter — length, breadth, depth, and weight, The packet was composed of strong thick paper, imperviable by the curious eyes of the gossips, though they stared as if they would burst from their sockets. The seal was a deep and well-cut impression of arms, which defied all tampering.

“Od, lass,” said Mrs. Shortcake, weighing it in her hand, and wishing, doubtless, that the too, too solid wax would melt and dissolve itself, “I wad like to ken what’s in the inside o’ this, for that Lovel dings a’ that ever set foot on the plainstanes o’ Fairport — naebody kens what to make o’ him.”

Mrs. Heukbane and Mrs. Shortcake
“Mrs. Heukbane and Mrs. Shortcake”
Original Etching by George Cruikshank

“Weel, weel, leddies,” said the postmistress, “we’se sit down and crack about it. — Baby, bring ben the tea-water — Muckle obliged to ye for your cookies, Mrs. Shortcake — and we’ll steek the shop, and cry ben Baby, and take a hand at the cartes till the gudeman comes hame — and then we’ll try your braw veal sweetbread that ye were so kind as send me, Mrs. Heukbane.”

“But winna ye first send awa Mr. Lovel’s letter?” said Mrs. Heukbane.

“Troth I kenna wha to send wi’t till the gudeman comes hame, for auld Caxon tell’d me that Mr. Lovel stays a’ the day at Monkbarns — he’s in a high fever, wi’ pu’ing the laird and Sir Arthur out o’ the sea.”

“Silly auld doited carles!” said Mrs. Shortcake; “what gar’d them gang to the douking in a night like yestreen!”

“I was gi’en to understand it was auld Edie that saved them,” said Mrs. Heukbane —“Edie Ochiltree, the Blue-Gown, ye ken; and that he pu’d the hale three out of the auld fish-pound, for Monkbarns had threepit on them to gang in till’t to see the wark o’ the monks lang syne.”

“Hout, lass, nonsense!” answered the postmistress; “I’ll tell ye, a’ about it, as Caxon tell’d it to me. Ye see, Sir Arthur and Miss Wardour, and Mr. Lovel, suld hae dined at Monkbarns”—

“But, Mrs. Mailsetter,” again interrupted Mrs. Heukbane, “will ye no be for sending awa this letter by express? — there’s our powny and our callant hae gane express for the office or now, and the powny hasna gane abune thirty mile the day; — Jock was sorting him up as I came ower by.”

“Why, Mrs. Heukbane,” said the woman of letters, pursing up her mouth, “ye ken my gudeman likes to ride the expresses himsell — we maun gie our ain fish-guts to our ain sea-maws — it’s a red half-guinea to him every time he munts his mear; and I dare say he’ll be in sune — or I dare to say, it’s the same thing whether the gentleman gets the express this night or early next morning.”

“Only that Mr. Lovel will be in town before the express gaes aff,” said Mrs. Heukbane; “and where are ye then, lass? But ye ken yere ain ways best.”

“Weel, weel, Mrs. Heukbane,” answered Mrs. Mailsetter, a little out of humour, and even out of countenance, “I am sure I am never against being neighbour-like, and living and letting live, as they say; and since I hae been sic a fule as to show you the post-office order — ou, nae doubt, it maun be obeyed. But I’ll no need your callant, mony thanks to ye — I’ll send little Davie on your powny, and that will be just five-and-threepence to ilka ane o’ us, ye ken.”

“Davie! the Lord help ye, the bairn’s no ten year auld; and, to be plain wi’ ye, our powny reists a bit, and it’s dooms sweer to the road, and naebody can manage him but our Jock.”

“I’m sorry for that,” answered the postmistress, gravely; “it’s like we maun wait then till the gudeman comes hame, after a’— for I wadna like to be responsible in trusting the letter to sic a callant as Jock — our Davie belangs in a manner to the office.”

“Aweel, aweel, Mrs. Mailsetter, I see what ye wad be at — but an ye like to risk the bairn, I’ll risk the beast.”

Orders were accordingly given. The unwilling pony was brought out of his bed of straw, and again equipped for service — Davie (a leathern post-bag strapped across his shoulders) was perched upon the saddle, with a tear in his eye, and a switch in his hand. Jock good-naturedly led the animal out of town, and, by the crack of his whip, and the whoop and halloo of his too well-known voice, compelled it to take the road towards Monkbarns.

Meanwhile the gossips, like the sibyls after consulting their leaves, arranged and combined the information of the evening, which flew next morning through a hundred channels, and in a hundred varieties, through the world of Fairport. Many, strange, and inconsistent, were the rumours to which their communications and conjectures gave rise. Some said Tennant and Co. were broken, and that all their bills had come back protested — others that they had got a great contract from Government, and letters from the principal merchants at Glasgow, desiring to have shares upon a premium. One report stated, that Lieutenant Taffril had acknowledged a private marriage with Jenny Caxon — another, that he had sent her a letter upbraiding her with the lowness of her birth and education, and bidding her an eternal adieu. It was generally rumoured that Sir Arthur Wardour’s affairs had fallen into irretrievable confusion, and this report was only doubted by the wise, because it was traced to Mrs. Mailsetter’s shop — a source more famous for the circulation of news than for their accuracy. But all agreed that a packet from the Secretary of State’s office, had arrived, directed for Mr. Lovel, and that it had been forwarded by an orderly dragoon, despatched from the head-quarters at Edinburgh, who had galloped through Fairport without stopping, except just to inquire the way to Monkbarns. The reason of such an extraordinary mission to a very peaceful and retired individual, was variously explained. Some said Lovel was an emigrant noble, summoned to head an insurrection that had broken out in La Vende’e — others that he was a spy — others that he was a general officer, who was visiting the coast privately — others that he was a prince of the blood, who was travelling incognito.

Meanwhile the progress of the packet which occasioned so much speculation, towards its destined owner at Monkbarns, had been perilous and interrupted. The bearer, Davie Mailsetter, as little resembling a bold dragoon as could well be imagined, was carried onwards towards Monkbarns by the pony, so long as the animal had in his recollection the crack of his usual instrument of chastisement, and the shout of the butcher’s boy. But feeling how Davie, whose short legs were unequal to maintain his balance, swung to and fro upon his back, the pony began to disdain furthur compliance with the intimations he had received. First, then, he slackened his pace to a walk This was no point of quarrel between him and his rider, who had been considerably discomposed by the rapidity of his former motion, and who now took the opportunity of his abated pace to gnaw a piece of gingerbread, which had been thrust into his hand by his mother in order to reconcile this youthful emissary of the post-office to the discharge of his duty. By and by, the crafty pony availed himself of this surcease of discipline to twitch the rein out of Davies hands, and applied himself to browse on the grass by the side of the lane. Sorely astounded by these symptoms of self-willed rebellion, and afraid alike to sit or to fall, poor Davie lifted up his voice and wept aloud. The pony, hearing this pudder over his head, began apparently to think it would be best both for himself and Davie to return from whence they came, and accordingly commenced a retrograde movement towards Fairport. But, as all retreats are apt to end in utter rout, so the steed, alarmed by the boy’s cries, and by the flapping of the reins, which dangled about his forefeet — finding also his nose turned homeward, began to set off at a rate which, if Davie kept the saddle (a matter extremely dubious), would soon have presented him at Heukbane’s stable-door — when, at a turn of the road, an intervening auxiliary, in the shape of old Edie Ochiltree, caught hold of the rein, and stopped his farther proceeding. “Wha’s aught ye, callant? whaten a gate’s that to ride?”

“I canna help it!” blubbered the express; “they ca’ me little Davie.”

“And where are ye gaun?”

“I’m gaun to Monkbarns wi’ a letter.”

“Stirra, this is no the road to Monkbarns.”

But Davie could oinly answer the expostulation with sighs and tears.

Old Edie was easily moved to compassion where childhood was in the case. —“I wasna gaun that gate,” he thought, “but it’s the best o’ my way o’ life that I canna be weel out o’ my road. They’ll gie me quarters at Monkbarns readily eneugh, and I’ll e’en hirple awa there wi’ the wean, for it will knock its hams out, puir thing, if there’s no somebody to guide the pony. — Sae ye hae a letter, hinney? will ye let me see’t?”

“I’m no gaun to let naebody see the letter,” sobbed the boy, “till I gie’t to Mr. Lovel, for I am a faithfu’ servant o’ the office — if it werena for the powny.”

“Very right, my little man,” said Ochiltree, turning the reluctant pony’s head towards Monkbarns; “but we’ll guide him atween us, if he’s no a’ the sweerer.”

Upon the very height of Kinprunes, to which Monkbarns had invited Lovel after their dinner, the Antiquary, again reconciled to the once degraded spot, was expatiating upon the topics the scenery afforded for a description of Agricola’s camp at the dawn of morning, when his eye was caught by the appearance of the mendicant and his protegee. “What the devil! — here comes Old Edie, bag and baggage, I think.”

The beggar explained his errand, and Davie, who insisted upon a literal execution of his commission by going on to Monkbarns, was with difficulty prevailed upon to surrender the packet to its proper owner, although he met him a mile nearer than the place he bad been directed to. “But my minnie said, I maun be sure to get twenty shillings and five shillings for the postage, and ten shillings and sixpence for the express — there’s the paper.”

“Let me see — let me see,” said Oldbuck, putting on his spectacles, and examining the crumpled copy of regulations to which Davie appealed.“Express, per man and horse, one day, not to exceed ten shillings and sixpence. One day? why, it’s not an hour — Man and horse? why, ’tis a monkey on a starved cat!”

“Father wad hae come himsell,” said Davie, “on the muckle red mear, an ye wad hae bidden till the morn’s night.”

“Four-and-twenty hours after the regular date of delivery! You little cockatrice egg, do you understand the art of imposition so early?”

“Hout Monkbarns! dinna set your wit against a bairn,” said the beggar; “mind the butcher risked his beast, and the wife her wean, and I am sure ten and sixpence isna ower muckle. Ye didna gang sae near wi’ Johnnie Howie, when”—

Lovel, who, sitting on the supposed Praetorium, had glanced over the contents of the packet, now put an end to the altercation by paying Davies demand; and then turning to Mr. Oldbuck, with a look of much agitation, he excused himself from returning with him to Monkbarns’ that evening. —“I must instantly go to Fairport, and perhaps leave it on a moment’s notice; — your kindness, Mr. Oldbuck, I can never forget.”

“No bad news, I hope?” said the Antiquary.

“Of a very chequered complexion,” answered his friend. “Farewell — in good or bad fortune I will not forget your regard.”

“Nay, nay — stop a moment. If — if —” (making an effort)—“if there be any pecuniary inconvenience — I have fifty — or a hundred guineas at your service — till — till Whitsunday — or indeed as long as you please.”

“I am much obliged, Mr. Oldbuck, but I am amply provided,” said his mysterious young friend.“Excuse me — I really cannot sustain further conversation at present. I will write or see you, before I leave Fairport — that is, if I find myself obliged to go.”

So saying, he shook the Antiquary’s hand warmly, turned from him, and walked rapidly towards the town, “staying no longer question.”

“Very extraordinary indeed!” said Oldbuck; —“but there’s something about this lad I can never fathom; and yet I cannot for my heart think ill of him neither. I must go home and take off the fire in the Green Room, for none of my womankind will venture into it after twilight.”

“And how am I to win hame?” blubbered the disconsolate express.

“It’s a fine night,” said the Blue-Gown, looking up to the skies; “I had as gude gang back to the town, and take care o’ the wean.”

“Do so, do so, Edie;” and rummaging for some time in his huge waistcoat pocket till be found the object of his search, the Antiquary added, “there’s sixpence to ye to buy sneeshin.”

14 Note E. Nick-sticks.

A sort of tally generally used by bakers of the olden time in settling with their customers. Each family had its own nick-stick, and for each loaf as delivered a notch was made on the stick. Accounts in Exchequer, kept by the same kind of check, may have occasioned the Antiquary’s partiality. In Prior’s time the English bakers had the same sort of reckoning.

Have you not seen a baker’s maid,

Between two equal panniers sway’d?

Her tallies useless lie and idle,

If placed exactly in the middle.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29