The Biography of an Elderly Gentleman: I. The Boy and the Bawbee

THE old gentleman claims that many years ago his name was Rubie. And that this was not at all a romantic name, but just a nickname. And that he, who dresses like any other decent body nowadays, did the same in the fifties. He wore a kilt, a wee bit shirt, a velveteen jacket, and a Glengarry bonnet. His galluses were latched to his kilts with a wooden pin. There were pockets to his jacket, and into one of these he put a bawbee when he had one. And the first bawbee ever he had, he found in the dust of a long summer day.

You would never guess, unless the old gentleman told you, how the Highlands of Scotland are continually bathed in summer. They are like those happy countries you may see from the peep end of an Easter egg. And more than anywhere the long summer day hangs upon the coast of the North Sea and about the neighborhood of the Moray Firth. Yes, that is the sort of day they have, and in the last light of any one of them you may see little boys drifting home from golden adventures to their beds in the villages of Ross and Cromarty.

On a Saturday afternoon the boys have been, as like as not, to Jerry’s Den. It was there that the bawbee of which we are told was found in the dust. A bawbee is a halfpenny, so called because, when Mary Queen of Scots came to the throne as a baby, — or what the Scotch in their own tongue call a ‘bawbee,’ — a coin of that value was struck with her image. And between a little Scotch boy and a bawbee there is to this day a thrilling affinity. There is in this matter a permanent devotion, a quest and a recurrent adventure. Some little boys achieve bawbees and some have these thrust upon them, but I will tell you at once that the best bawbees are found. If on the coach road, says the old gentleman, you find a snail’s trail in the dust, you follow that silver lead into the grass where you find the snail, and then you twirl it three times about your head. This is a charm with intent to find presently a bawbee.

But on this long summer day the bawbee just came to hand without aid of snail or other magic. And it did not at first seem, says the old gentleman, to be his own. He put it in the pocket of his jacket, provisionally, and not meaning to use it; but — in tumbling — out it fell upon the ground, and there was another boy shouting that ‘Rubie has a bawbee and will buy the sweeties’; which he then did. This was the beginning of a beneficent custom always encouraged by his hangers-on, and instituted, as I now see, with his first fortune.

His second fortune was earned, and in foreign parts. A sister took him across the Cromarty Firth to see his granny. The most gilded climate is not flawless, and there came a storm upon that little boat in that narrow sea-way. The old gentleman remembers that he then made his first prayer: ‘O Lord God of Israel!’ he prayed, — neither more nor less, — and came safe to the other side.

Here among the hills was a sheiling where his granny lived. There were three rooms in this cabin, — a bit and a ben and a room atween, — and oh, such cosy windows! Very wee they were, because windows were taxed; but the chimney was not taxed at all, and that was big and with an ingle.

His granny was in bed; she wore a white mutch, and if you will believe it, she did not know his name! He could read, which she could not. She asked her daughter in Gaelic, could he repeat the Twenty-third Psalm; and this he did for her in the English tongue. Whereupon from under her pillow she took a knotted handkerchief, and from this with her old hands she took a white shilling.

Lord God of Israel! A fortune, and all earned in the high way of Religion. But there is this sad difference between a bawbee and a shilling: you buy sweeties with the one, but you take the other to your mither.

Rubie’s mother was from Forres way. She taught her little boy to write with the sharpened handle of a pewter spoon, and this she did that he might write her letters to his father, who was away at work in the North. He was a millwright. This was the time of the Corn Laws and the Irish Famine and Richard Cobden. The old gentleman tends to wander from Rubie at this point; he grows historical and geographical and pedantic, until we drag him back to the day when there was no dinner. We remind him that once he came home from the Dame’s school and ‘there’ll be no dinner the day,’ says his mother. Ruble takes what measures he may — he lies face down across a chair, on the principle and for the reason that a hungry man tightens his belt. The clock strikes two and Rubie looks it in the face. ‘What’s the use of striking two,’ he asks of that mechanical perfection, ‘when there is no dinner?’ And I suppose he wrote his father on that day with a clean, clean pewter spoon.

Other letters he wrote, coming on to be eight years old, for other women to other men, and for each he was paid tuppence. The serving maids in the farms round about would send for little Rubie, and on a Saturday — a lang simmer day — he would be writing letters for one and another in garret rooms under the eaves. The service-bell would ring, and the maid would run to answer; the scribe would be left to wait, and to look about that little room. I fear he fingered what he saw, for he has a most exact remembrance of a maid who had a pot of pomatum on her dresser, — ‘Cream of Roses,’ it was, — and the scent of it, the first scent ever he savored, was as fine as the name. There was, besides, a bottle of hair-oil, scented too. Tuppence he was paid for the letter he wrote on that day, and he claims that he can see the young girl speaking, after these more than sixty years, and that he can feel himself writing: ‘I send you my love and if I was writing myself I would say much more.’

He claims further that his next job brought him in sixpence a day, his board, and a pair of rubber boots. In those lang simmer days he herded cattle and silly sheep on the flanks of the Soutars of Cromarty, among the prickles of the whins where a little lad might well prize his rubber boots. A sixpence a day we think to have been an excessive wage, but he holds to it and pretends to have had butter to his bread — that was an oat-cake or a disk of barley baked and rolled up. Some days there would be a Swedish turnip, and, in their season, wild berries, and — oh, sweetest bite! — a potato baked in the embers of a little fire among the whins or the heather, and none the worse for the ashes.

The luck of some folk is too much for lesser folk to bear, and this little boy with his bit fire and his spud in the ashes and his buttered oat-cake, and his wild honey from the ground and his whistle that he made from willow, — and all among the golden whins of the lang simmer day, — how we envy him! We cannot rob him of one hour but we take away the sixpence. Sixpence, we say, can never have been paid to a silly little shepherd in rubber boots, so long ago and so far away. The wage, we say, is excessive. The buttered cake, the whistle he brags of, and the honey stolen from the ground — who are we to know the makings of these? But a sixpence we know, and how it is made. A sixpence a week we will allow him, and no more. That is silver enough for a lad who, by his own count, has every other sort of fortune.

But, he argues, all the other shepherds get the sixpence! For there are more little shepherds lolling about in the heather on the hillsides — a whole union of them — who will not work for less than sixpence, who will not work indeed at all, but who eat their honey and pipe upon their whistles and read the Leather-Stocking Tales and The King’s Own — and some of whom will come, long after, to fall from the ranks of that same regiment into Egyptian graves.

Yet here they all are in the lang simmer day, at a sixpence apiece! For a drink of milk they will bless you: ‘ God bless your cows, goodwife, and would you be giving us a drink of water?’ ‘Bide a wee,’ says the goodwife; and they bide a wee, the rascals, till she comes from ben the house with a pitcher of milk.

The old gentleman claims to have invented this blessing himself, so you see how clever he was at a sixpence a day.

Yes, he was clever, terrible clever; do not think to keep up with him, for now he is a tutor. From being a piping shepherd, hehas become a tutor and has the Latin. That’s him, with the Latin, going through the snow to the shepherd’s cabin in the hills. Thirteen years he is now, and terrible wee he is, too, but there is no help for that. He must just face the driving snow in the morning moonlight, and keep close on the heels of the old shepherd, whose body is a wall against the stour, until they come to the shelling where the children are just longing for their tutor with the Latin.

There were four of these, and a great girl who had for her own the wisest of collies. Aye, after many a year we remember that girl and that dog — the one whistling her orders from her father’s door to the other across the valley, where he stood upon a rock among the heather — whence he sprang away to herd the straying sheep he could not see. Wise as Solomon, he was, that dog!

They were great dancers in that house. By the firelight and the light of a little pear-shaped iron lamp that hung from the lintel of the fireplace, its wick of rushes fed with whale oil, they danced to the piping of one of themselves. And all those nights of dancing — there were three winter months of them — were embittered for the little tutor by this: there was a tear in his jacket. A many a time in my life he has told me of this tear; that it ran down the front of his coat; that he was always mending it with a pin he had; that whenever he swung about in the fling of the dance the rent part of the coat stood out at right angles. He was never so ashamed in his life, he says. There is nothing for it now, I know, but to let it go at that; but I ask about the big young shepherdess and the other women of that family — could they not have mended up their little tutor and so have saved his freckled face? ‘They were ungracious,’ says the old gentleman with reluctance, and upon revisiting in his mind that group under the whale-oil lamp.

And presently, he tells me, they would have prayers after the dancing, in Gaelic, each child reading in turn his verse. And then to bed in bunks under the eaves, with warm blankets and feather pillows. So the torn jacket is forgotten until another evening. And never to be forgotten, as you see for yourself; always to be hanging where we would come upon it now and again, and remember the piping and the dancing and the ‘Hieland pride’ of a little homesick boy.

Fifteen shillings were the threemonths’ wage, and the little tutor took them to his father. He came down from the hills to the village where his father was working at his trade. There was himself at the bench, in his long linen apron. I know that his nickname was Winter, but it was not his children who gave him that name. On this day when he saw the fortune of white shillings in that little fist, he met the unique hour with an uncommon grace. Deliberately he sat himself upon his bench; he threw his apron over his shoulder that he might come the more easily at the pocket in his waistcoat; he thrust his fingers into that pocket, and he brought out his snuff-box. A pinch of snuff he took himself and then, as man to man, he offered the box and the quill to his boy. As if that little tutor were Hugh Miller or any other of his father’s honored cronies. This incredible condescension was not marred by any words.

And I will tell you about the son of wise old Winter, that he ripened more in that silence than in a month of summers. Not a long silence it was, with fifteen shillings on the bench between them, needing care. A sixpence was for Rubie, and ‘the rest you ’ll take to your mither.’

Which he did. And many a bawbee of his own earning has slipped through his fingers since then. An inveterate giver-away he is, in the manner of old Lear. But the snuff-box he has not given away; no beggar of all his begging children has begged of him the snuffbox. It is on the chimneypiece of his house; and I think it is for him and for them a kind of symbol of a happy sacramental hour, or the instrument of a humble accolade.

(To be continued)