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Wilson's Border Tales
The Dead Deal

The best feature of a story is, after all, its truth; and, however much the fancy of man may travail in the production of plots and characters, we must always come back to the working of our old mother Nature. Yet, or a verity, she herself is a strange coiner of inventions; and, if it were not that she is so sober-looking a matron, especially at this time of the year, we would sometimes have very good grounds to doubt if she herself did not sometimes deal as much in fiction as ever did the favour Don Pinto of mendacious memory. In one stance which we are about to detail, she played off one of her tricks of invention with an art that no fictioneer out of China, where they are all liars together, could have done so well by a full half. In the old town of Dumfries lived an individual called Simon M’William, a very good man, and as good a Christian to boot as one might see in a whole chancel of godly men on a Sunday. His religion was as sincere as a good heart could feel, and the actions of his life acknowledged in their uprightness the power of his good spirit; yet was it a matter of verity, however much it may savour of strangeness, that his holiness, no more than Dr Johnson’s, ever took away from him the fear of death.

This peculiarity in his character, and this alone, was the cause of some disputes between him and his wife Margaret, who was as good a Christian as Simon, but who, with the fortitude of her sex, when they get old, seemed to care no more for the big black angel than she did for the arch-enemy himself. Had it not been for this difference, these two godly persons might have been as happy as ever were man and wife in this lower world, or any other world of which Fontenelle has given an account. But this was an eternal source of disagreement. Somehow or another, Margaret was almost continually talking about the vanity of all things here, after the manner of the son of Sirach, or any other prophet. And from this she fell naturally into the subject of death, of whom she spoke as a good friend, that would, by and by, remove her and Simon from this sphere of suffering. Of a truth, it was as strange a sight as one could wish to see, in this province of wonders, this worthy pair engaged in this subject of conjugal polemics; for, while the eye of the one brightened with the prospect of an immortality as pure as everlasting, which made her despise the pains of dissolution, the other gloomed like a cloud in November, shuddered with horror at the prospect of death and judgment, and taxed his better half, in his bitterness of spite, with a wish that he were gathered to his fathers.

Now, it happened that Simon took ill, and was, indeed, just as ill as any man ought to be when he calls for a physician; but the never a physician he would send for, notwithstanding all that Margaret could advance in favour of its expediency. He trembled at the very idea of being in danger; and the face of a doctor was, he thought, no better than that of death himself. The opportunity, however, thus presented, by the hand of God’s affection, was too good a one to be let slip by Margaret, without turning it to account in behalf of Simon’s soul. So she set to work with all the pith of her tongue, to array before him the consequences of death; nor did she stop, although she saw him twisting himself like a snake beneath the clothes, and heard strong words of objurlation and spite come from his white lips, as he struggled with his anger and his fear.

On a subsequent day, Simon had been dovering a little, and enjoying a respite from his terrors. Startled by some noise, he looked up, and whom should he see standing before him, and actually holding his pulse, but the doctor himself. He had come by the request of Margaret, who could not stand by, as she said, and see her husband die, without something being done for the safety of his body. Simon shuddered with terror, and bade the doctor be gone—but the doctor was a man of sense, and knew the infirmity of his patient. Simon grew worse and worse. Margaret continued her devotional exercises, and spoke of death more and more. Visitors called daily, to ascertain how he was, and, as none durst approach him, to inquire about his health, they were generally answered at the door, in such a manner as that he might not hear their inquiries. One day Margaret thought he had got worse than ever—for he was lying apparently in a state of great weakness, with his eyes shut, and his mouth open, and other signs of dissolution about him; but the truth was, that he was undergoing an improvement, by a process of nature’s own, and the vis medicatrix was busy working in him a change for the better. At this moment it happened, in that curious way by which the imp Chance chooses to bring about coincidences, that Jenny Perkins—a very officious body—put in her head at Margaret’s door, and asked how Simon was. Margaret shook her head, as any good wife would do, and looked as melancholy as if her face had been lengthened by the stretching process about to be applied to her husband. She had, however, a message for Jenny to perform, and thought proper to get her own request out before she answered by words that which had been put to her.

"Run up, Jenny," she said, "to George Webster, and tell him he’s wanted here immediately."

Now, this George Webster was no other than an undertaker; and Jenny, judging from the look, and the shake of the head of Margaret, that all was over with Simon, flew as fast as intelligence itself, and told George Webster to take down the "streeking board" to Simon M’William’s upon the instant. This was an addition of Jenny’s own; for Margaret wanted the wright for another purpose entirely. The command was complied with by two of George’s men, who stalked away with the grim "deal," in the expectation of getting a "good dram," as is customary on stretching out the dead. As they went along, all the neighbours looked and gossiped, and set down Simon for dead; and by the time they got to the door, Margaret had gone forth to the doctor’s for some medicine which he was preparing for Simon. But the men cared nothing for the absence of the living—it was the presence of the dead they wanted; so in they stalked, and they never stopped till they were by the bedside of Simon. There they placed themselves, like sentinels, with the dead deal standing between them, on its broad end, and the round head of it presented to the face of the patient. The noise awoke Simon. He opened his eyes; saw the men standing before him with the dead deal in their hands, just as if he had been on the very eve of being stretched out. He seemed to doubt whether he was dead or alive; for he stared a goodly time, without saying a single word; but the men, seeing his eyelids move, and the eyes fixed upon them, took fright, and hurried away out of the room. We never heard described the feelings of Simon on this occasion. One thing is certain—that he was still more satisfied that Margaret wished to bring death upon him, by presenting the object to both his senses of hearing and seeing; but, in spite of her efforts, he got better, and lived afterwards for many years after he had thus seen his own "Dead Deal."

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