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Book of Scottish Story
Catching a Tartar

By D.M. Moir [From ‘Mansie Wauch’]

From the first moment I clapped eye on the caricature thing of a coat that Tammie Bodkin had, in my absence, shaped out for Cursecowl the butcher, I foresaw, in my own mind, that a catastrophe was brewing for us; and never did soldier gird himself to fight the French, or sailor prepare for a sea-storm, with greater alacrity, than I did to cope with the bull-dog anger, and buffet back the uproarious vengeance of our heathenish customer.

At first I thought of letting the thing take its natural course, and of threaping down Cursecowl’s throat that he must have been feloniously keeping in his breath when Tammie took his measure ; and, moreover, that as it was the fashion to be straight-laced, Tammie had done his utmost trying to make him look like his betters; till, my conscience checking me for such a nefarious intention, I endeavoured, as became me in the relations of man, merchant, and Christian, to solder the matter peaceably, and show him, if there was a fault committed, that there was no evil intention on my side of the house. To this end I despatched the bit servant wench, on the Friday afternoon, to deliver the coat, which was neatly tied up in brown paper, and directed, "Mr Cursecowl, with care," and to buy a sheep’s-head; bidding her, by way of being civil, give my kind compliments, and inquire how Mr and Mrs Cursecowl, and the five little Miss Cursecowls, were keeping their healths, and trusting to his honour in sending me a good article. But have a moment’s patience.

Being busy at the time turning a pair of kuttikins for old Mr Mooleypouch the mealmonger, when the lassie came back I had no mind of asking a sight of the sheep’s-head, as I aye like the little blackfaced in preference to the White, fat, fozy Cheviot breed; but most providentially I catched a gliskie of the wench passing the shop window, on the road over to Jamie Coom the smith’s, to get it singed, having been dispatched there by her mistress. Running round the counter like lightning, I opened the sneck, and halooed to her to wheel to the right about, having, somehow or other, a superstitious longing to look at the article. As I was saying, there was a providence in this, which, at the time, mortal man could never have thought of.

James Batter had popped in with a newspaper in his hand, to read me a curious account of a mermaid that was seen singing a Gaelic song, and combing its hair with a tortoise-shell comb, someway terrible far north about Shetland, by a respectable minister of the district, riding home in the gloaming after a Presbytery dinner. So, as he was just taking off his spectacles cannily, and saying to me—" And was not that droll? ”—the lassie spread down her towel on the counter, when, lo, and behold I such an abominable spectacle ! James Batter observing me run back, and turn white, put on his glasses again, cannily taking them out of his well-worn shagreen case, and, giving a stare down at the towel, almost touched the beast’s
nose with his own.

"And what, in the name of goodness, is the rnatter?" quo’ James Batter; "ye seem in a wonderful quandary.”

"The matter!” answered I, in astonishment, looking to see if the man had lost his sight or his senses; "the matter I who ever saw a sheep’s-head with straight horns, and a visnomy all colours of the rainbow—red, blue, orange, green, yellow, white, and black?”

"’Deed it is,” said James, after a nearer inspection; "it must be a lowsy-naturay. I’m sure I have read most of Buffon’s books, and I have never heard tell of the like. It’s gey and queerish.”

"’Od, James,” answered I, "ye take everything very canny; you’re a philosopher, to be sure; but I daresay if the moon was to fall from the lift, and knock down the old kirk, ye would say no more than ‘it’s gey and queerish.’”

"Queerish, man! Do ye not see that?” added I, shoving down his head mostly on the top of it. "Do ye not
see that? awful, most awful I extonishing ! Do ye not see that long beard? Who, in the name of goodness, ever was an eyewitness to a sheep’s-head, in a Christian land, with a beard like an unshaven Jew, crying ‘ owl clowes,’ with a green bag over his left shoulder ? ”

"Dog on it," said James, giving a fidge with his hainches; "dog on it, - as I am a living sinner, that is the head of a Willie-goat."

"Willie or Nannie,” answered I, "it’s not meat for me; and never shall an ounce of it cross the craig of my family—that is as sure as ever James Batter drave a shuttle. Give counsel in need, James: what is to be done?”

"That needs consideration,” quo’ James, giving a bit hoast. "Unless he makes ample apology, and explains the mistake in a feasible way, it is my humble opinion that he ought to be summoned before his betters. That is the legal way to make him smart for his sins.”

At last a thought struck me, and I saw farther through my difficulties than ever mortal man did through a millstone; but, like a politican, I minted not the matter to James. Keeping my tongue cannily within my teeth, I then laid the head, wrapped up in the bit towel, in a corner behind the counter; and turning my face round again to James, I put my hands into my breeches-pockets, as if nothing in the world had happened, and ventured back to the story of the mermaid. I asked him how she looked —what kind of dress she wore—if she swam with her corsets—what was the colour of her hair—where she would buy the tortoise-shell comb—and so on; when just as he was clearing his pipe to reply, who should burst open the shop-door like a clap of thunder, with burning cat’s een, and a face as red as a soldier’s jacket, but Cursecowl himself, with the new killing-coat in his hand, which, giving a tremendous curse (the words of which are not essentially necessary for me to repeat, being an elder of our kirk), he made play flee at me with such a birr, that it I twisted round my neck, and mostly blinding me, made me doze like a tottum. At the same time, to clear his way, and the better to enable him to take a good mark, he gave James Batter a shove, that made him stoiter against the wall, and snacked the good new farthing tobacco-pipe, that James was taking his first whiff out of; crying at the same blessed moment—

"Hold out o’ my road, ye long, withered wabster. Ye’re a pair of havering idiots; but I’ll have pennyworths out of both your skins, as I’m a sinner!”

What was to be done? There was no time for speaking; for Cursecowl, foaming like a mad dog with passion, seized hold of the ell-wand, which he flourished round his head like a Highlander’s broadsword, and stamping about with his stockings drawn up his thighs, threatened every moment to commit bloody murder.

If James Batter never saw service before, he learned a little of it that day, being in a pickle of bodily terror not to be imagined by living man; but his presence of mind did not forsake him, and he cowered for safety and succour into a far corner, holding out a web of buckram before him, me crying all the time —" Send for the town-officer ! Will ye not send for the town—officer? "

You may talk of your General Moores and your Lord Wellingtons as ye like; but never, since I was born, did I ever see or hear tell of anything braver than the way Tammy Bodkin behaved, in saving both our precious lives, at that blessed nick of time, from touch-and-go jeopardy ; for, when Cursecowl was rampauging about, cursing and swearing like a Russian bear, hurling out volleys of oaths that would have frighted John Knox, forbye the like of us, Tammie stole in behind him like a wild cat, followed by Joseph Breekey, Walter Cuff, and Jack Thorl, the three apprentices, on their stocking-soles; and having strong and dumpy arms, pinned back his elbows like a flash of lightning, giving the other callants time to jump on his back, and hold him like a vice ; while, having got time to draw my breath, and screw up my pluck, I ran forward like a lion, and houghed the whole concern—Tammie Bodkin, the three faithful apprentices, Cursecowl, and all, coming to the ground like a battered castle.

It was now James Batter’s time to come up in line; and though a douce man (being savage for the insulting way that Cursecowl had dared to use him), he dropped down like mad, with his knees on Cursecowl’s breast, who was yelling, roaring, and grinding his buckteeth like a mad bull, kicking right and spurring left with fire and fury; and, taking his Kilmarnock off his head, thrust it, like a battering-ram, into Cursecowl’s mouth, to hinder him from alarming the neighbourhood, and bringing the whole world about our ears.

Such a stramash of tumbling, roaring, tearing, swearing, kicking, pushing, cuffmg, rugging, and riving about the floor! I thought they would not have left one another with a shirt on: it seemed a combat even to the death. Cursecowl’s breath was choked up within him, like wind in an empty bladder; and when I got a gliskie of his face, from beneath James’s cowl, it was growing as black as the crown of my hat. It feared me much that murder would be the upshot, the webs being all heeled over, both of broad cloth, buckram, cassimir, and Welsh flannel; and the paper shapings and worsted runds coiled about their throats and bodies like fiery serpents. At long and last, I thought it became me, being the head of the house, to sound a parley, and bid them give the savage a mouthful of fresh air, to see if he had anything to say in his defence.

Cursecowl, by this time, had forcible assurance of our ability to overpower him, and finding he had by far the worst of it, was obliged to grow tamer, using the first breath he got to cry out —

"A barley, ye thieves! a barley! I tell you, give me wind. There’s not a man in nine of ye!”

Finding our own strength, we saw, by this time, that we were masters of the field; nevertheless we took care to make good terms when they were in our power, nor would we allow Cursecowl to sit upright till after he had said, three times over, on his honour as a gentleman, that he would behave as became one.

After giving his breeches-knees a skuff with his loof, to dad off the stoure, he came, right foot foremost, to the counter-side, while the laddies were dighting their brows, and stowing away the webs upon their ends round about, saying,—

"Maister Wauch, how have ye the conscience to send hame such a piece o’ wark as that coat to ony decent man? Do ye dare to imagine that I am a Jerusalem spider, that I could be crammed, neck and heels, into such a thing as that? Fie, shame—it would not button on yourself, man, scarecrow-looking mortal though ye be!"

James Batter’s blood was now up, and boiling like an old Roman’s; so he was determined to show Cursecowl that I had a friend in court, able and willing to keep him at stave’s end.

"Keep a calm sough," said James Batter, interfering; "and not miscall the head of the house in his own shop; or, to say nothing of present consequences, by way of showing ye the road to the door, perhaps Maister Sneckdrawer, the penny-writer, ’ll give ye a caption-paper with a broad margin, to claw your elbow with at your leisure, my good fellow."

"Pugh, pugh!” cried Cursecowl, snapping his finger and thumb at James’ beak; "I do not value your threatening an ill halfpenny. Come away out your ways to the crown of the causey, and I’ll box any three of ye, over the bannys, for half-a-mutchkin. But, ’ odsake, Batter, my man, nobody’s speaking to you,” added Cursecowl, giving a hack now and then, and a bit spit down on the floor; "go hame, man, and get your cowl washed; I daresay you have pushioned me, so I have no more to say to the like of you. But now, Maister Wauch, just speaking hooly and fairly, do you not think black burning shame of yourself, for putting such an article into any decent Christian man’s hand, like mine?”

"Wait a wee—wait a wee, friend, and I’ll give ye a lock salt to your broth,"' answered I, in a calm and cool way; for, being a confidential elder of Maister Wiggie’s, I kept myself free from the sin of getting into a passion, or lighting, except in self-defence, which is forbidden neither by law nor gospel ; and, stooping down, I took up the towel from the corner, and, spreading it upon the counter, bade him look, and see if he knew an auld acquaintance !

Cursecowl, to be such a dragoon, had some rational points in his character; so, seeing that he lent ear to me with a smirk on his rough red face, I went on:

"Take my advice as a friend, and make the best of your way home, killing-coat and all ; for the most perfect will sometimes fall into an innocent mistake, and, at any rate, it cannot be helped now. But if ye show any symptom of obstripulosity, I’ll find myself under the necessity of publishing you abroad to the world for what you are, and show about that head in the towel for a wonder to broad Scotland, in a manner that will make customers flee from your booth, as if it was infected with the seven plagues of Egypt."

At sight of the goat’s head, Cursecowl clapped his hand on his thigh two or three times, and could scarcely muster good manners enough to keep himself from bursting out a-laughing.

"Ye seem to have found a fiddle, friend,” said I; "but give me leave to tell you, that ye’ll may be find it liker a hanging-match than a musical matter. Are you not aware that I could hand you over to the sheriff, on two special indictments? In the first place, for an action of assault and batterification, in cuffing me, an elder of our kirk, with a sticked killing-coat, in my own shop; and, in the second place, as a swindler, imposing on his Majesty’s loyal subjects, taking the coin of the realm on false pretences, and palming off goat’s flesh upon Christians, as if they were perfect Pagans."

Heathen though Cursecowl was, this oration alarmed him in a jiffie, soon showing him, in a couple of hurries, that it was necessary for him to be our humble servant ; so he said, still keeping the smirk on his face—

"Keh, keh, it’s not worth making a noise about after all. Gie me the jacket, Mansie, my man, and it’ll maybe serve my nephew, young Killim, who is as lingit in the waist as a wasp. Let us take a shake of your paw over the counter, and be friends. Bye-ganes should be bye-ganes.”

Never let it be said that Mansie Wauch, though one of the king’s volunteers, ever thrust aside the olive branch of peace ; so, ill-used though I had been, to say nothing of James Batter, who had got his pipe smashed to crunches, and one of the eyes of his spectacles knocked out, I gave him my fist frankly.

James Batter’s birse had been so fiercely put up, and no wonder, that it was not so easily sleeked down; so, for a while, he looked unco glum, till Cursecowl insisted that our meeting should not be a dry one; nor would he hear a single word on me and James Batter not accepting his treat of a mutchkin of Kilbugie.

I did not think James would have been so doure and refractory, funking and Hinging like old Jeroboam ; but at last, with the persuasion of the treat, he came to, and, sleeking down his front hair, we all three took a step down to the far end of the close, at the back street, where Widow Thamson kept the sign of ‘The Tankard and the Tappit Hen ;’ Cursecowl, when we got ourselves seated, ordering in the spirits with a loud rap on the table with his knuckles, and a whistle on the landlady through his foreteeth, that made the roof ring. A bottle of beer was also brought; so, after drinking one another’s healths round, with a tasting out of the dram glass, Cursecowl swashed the rest of the raw creature into the tankard, saying—

“Now take your will o’t; there’s drink fit for a king ; that’s real ‘Pap-in.’”

He was an awful body, Cursecowl, and had a power of queer stories, which, weel—a-wat, did not lose in the telling. James Batter, beginning to brighten up, hodged and leuch like a nine-year-old; and I freely confess, for another, that I was so diverted, that, I daresay, had it not been for his fearsome oaths, which made our very hair stand on end, and were enough to open the stone—wall, we would have both sate from that time to this.

We got the whole story of the Willie-goat, out and out, it seeming to be with Cursecowl a prime matter of diversion, especially that part of it relating to the head, by which he had won a crown-piece from Deacon Paunch, who wagered that the wife and me would eat it, without ever finding out our mistake. But, aha, lad!

The long and the short ofthe matter was this. The Willie-goat had, for eighteen years, belonged to a dragoon marching regiment, and, in its better days, had seen a power of service abroad; till, being now old and infirm, it had fallen off one of the baggage-carts, and got its leg broken on the road to Piershill, where it was sold to Cursecowl, by a corporal, for half-a-crown and a dram. The four quarters he had managed to sell for mutton, like lightning, this one buying a jigget, that one a back ribs, and so on. However, he had to weather a gey brisk gale in making his point good. One woman remarked that it had an unearthly, rank smell; to which he said, "No, no—ye do not ken your blessings, friend ; that’s the smell of venison, for the beast was brought up along with the deers in the Duke’s parks." And to another wife, that, after smell-smelling at it, thought it was a wee humphed, he replied, "Faith, that’s all the thanks folks get for letting their sheep crop heather among the Cheviot hills," and such-like lies. But as for the head, that had been the doure business. Six times had it been sold and away, and six times had it been brought back again. One bairn said that her "mother didna like a sheep’s-head with horns like these," and wanted it changed for another one. A second one said, that "it had tup’s een, and her father liked wether mutton.” A third customer found mortal fault with the colours, which, she said, " were not canny, or in the Course of nature. What the fourth one said, and the fifth one took leave to observe, I have stupidly forgotten, though, I am sure, I heard both; but I mind one remarked, quite off-hand, as she sought back her money, that "unless sheep could do without beards, like their neighbours, she would keep the pot boiling with a piece beef in the meantime? After all this—would any mortal man believe it ?—Deacon Paunch, the greasy Daniel Lambert that he is, had taken the wager, as I before took opportunity to remark, that our family would swallow the bait ! But, aha, he was off his eggs there!

James and me were so tickled with Cursecowl’s wild, outrageous, off-hand, humoursome way of telling his crack, that, though sore with neighering, none of the two of us ever thought of rising ; Cursecowl chapping in first one stoup, and then another, and birling the tankard round the table, as if we had been drinking dub-water. I daresay I would never have got away, had I not slipped out behind Lucky Thamson’s back—for she was a broad fat body, with a round-eared mutch, and a full-plaited check apron—when she was drawing the" sixth bottle of small beer, with her corkscrew between her knees ; Cursecowl lecturing away, at the dividual moment, like a Glasgow professor, to James Batter, whose een were gathering straws, on a pliskie he had once, in the course of trade, played on a conceited body of a French sick-nurse, by selling her a lump of fat pork 'to make beef-tea of to her mistress, who was dwining in the blue Beelzebubs.

Ohone, and woe ’s me, for old Father Adam and the fall of man! Poor, sober, good, honest James Batter was not, by a thousand miles, a match for such company. Everything, however, has its moral, and the truth will out. When Nanse and me were sitting at our breakfast next morning, we heard from Benjie, who had been early up fishing for eels at the water-side, that the whole town talk was concerning the misfortunate James Batter, who had been carried home, totally incapable, far in the night, by Cursecowl and an Irish labourer—that sleeped in Widow Thamson’s garret—on a hand-barrow, borrowed from Maister Wiggie’s servant-lass, Jenny Jessamine.

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