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Wilson's Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Volume XXIII online

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pedagogue of the name of Aristotle, "all virtues are medial vices, and
all vices extreme virtues." How Tammas viewed this question may also
appear. But we may proceed to state, that Mrs. Janet Dodds was not
content with doing all those things with such severity of love or duty.
She was always telling herself what she intended to do, either at the
moment or afterwards. "This pan needs to be scoured." "Thae stockings
maun be darned." "This sark is as black as the lum, and maun be
plotted." "The floor needs scrubbing." "Tammas's coat is crying, 'A
steek in time saves nine,' and by my faith it says true;" and so on. Nor
did it signify much whether Thomas or any other person was in the house
at the time - the words were not intended for anybody but herself; and to
herself she persisted in telling them with a stedfastness which only the
ears of a whitesmith could tolerate; even with the consideration that he
was not, as so many are, deaved with scandal - a delectation which Janet
despised, if she did not care as little for what was going on
domestically within the house on the top of the same stair, as she did
for the in-door affairs of Japan or Tobolsk. We may mention, also, that
she persevered in reading the same chapter of the Bible, and in singing
the same psalm, every Sunday morning. In addition to these
characteristics, Janet made it a point never to change the form or
colour of her dress; so that if all the women in Edinburgh had been of
her taste and mode of thinking, all the colours by which they are
diversified and made interesting would have been reduced to the dead
level of hodden-grey; the occupation of the imp Fashion would have been
gone; nay, the angels, for fear of offending mortals, would have
eschewed the nymph Iris, from whom the poets say they steal tints, and
dipt their wings in a grey cloud before appearing in the presence of the
douce daughters of men.

With all these imperfections - and how many husbands would term some of
them perfections! - the married life of Thomas and Janet Dodds might have
gone on for another five years, and five to that, if it had not been
that Thomas, in a weary hour, cast a glance with a scarlet ray in it on
a certain Mary Blyth, who lived in the Grassmarket - a woman of whom our
legend says no more than that she was a widow, besides being fair to the
eye, and pleasant to the ear. We could wish that we had it not to say;
but as truth is more valuable than gold, yea, refined gold, we are under
the necessity of admitting that that red ray betokened love, if an
affection of that kind could be called by a name so hallowed by the
benedictions of poets and the songs of angels. You must take it in your
own way, and with your own construction; but however that may be, we
must all mourn for the fearful capabilities within us, and the not less
awful potentialities in the powers without - the one hidden from us up to
the moment when the others appear, and all wrestling with the enemy
prevented by what is often nothing less than a fatal charm. From that
moment, Thomas Dodds was changed after the manner of action of moral
poisons; for we are to remember that while the physical kill, the other
only transmute, and the transmutation _may be_ from any good below grace
to any evil above the devil.

This change in the mind of the husband included his manner of viewing
those peculiarities in the mental constitution of Janet to which we have
alluded. Her desire to rule him was now rebellion; her devotion to
"hussyskep" was nothing better than mercenary grubbing; her adhesion to
her hodden-grey was vulgar affectation; and as to her monologues, they
were evidence of insanity. Such changes in reference to other objects
happen to every one of us every day in the year, only we don't look at
and examine them; nor, if we did, could we reconcile them to any theory
of the mind - all that we can say being, that if we love a certain
object, we hate any other which comes between us and our gratification;
and thus, just as Mr. Thomas Dodds loved Mrs. Mary Blyth, so in an equal
ratio he hated his good helpmate Jenny. And then began that other
wonderful process called reconciliation, whereby the wish gradually
overcomes scruples through the cunning mean of falsifying their aspects.
Whereunto, again, the new mistress contributed in the adroit way of all
such wretches - instilling into his ear the moral poison which deadened
the apperception of these scruples at the same time that it brought out
the advantages of disregarding them. The result of all which was, that
Jenny's husband, of whom she had made a slave, for his own good and
benefit, as she thought, and not without reason, arrived, by small
degrees, and by relays of new motives, one after another, at the
conclusion of actually removing her from this big world, and of course
also from that little one to her so dear, even that of her household
empire.

A resolution this, which, terrible and revolting as it may appear to
those who are happily beyond the influence of "the wish," was far more
easily formed than executed; for Nature - although improvident herself of
her children, swallowing them up in thousands by earthquakes, tearing
them by machinery, and drowning them in the sea by shiploads - is very
careful to defend one of them against another. Every scheme the husband
could think of was surrounded with difficulties, and one by one was laid
aside, till he came to that of precipitating his faithful Jenny, as if
by accident, into a deep pool in the North Loch, that sheet of water
which contained as many secrets in its bosom as that more romantic one
in Italy, not far removed from a certain pious nunnery. Even here there
was the difficulty of getting Jenny out at night, and down Cranstoun's
Close, and to west of the foot thereof, where the said deep pool was,
for no other ostensible purpose in the world than to see the moon
shedding her beams on the surface of the water - an object not half so
beautiful to her as the clear tin pan made by her own Tammas, and in
which she made her porridge every morning. But the adage about the will
and the way is of such wondrous universality, that one successful effort
seems as nothing in the diversity of man's inventions; and so it turned
out to be comparatively easy to get Janet out one evening for the reason
that her husband did not feel very well, and would like his supper the
better for a walk along the edge of the loch, in which, if it was her
pleasure, she would not refuse to accompany him. So pleasant a way of
putting the thing harmonized with Janet's love of rule, and she agreed
upon the condition she made with herself, by means of the eternal
soliloquy, that she would put on the stew to be progressing towards
unctuousness and tenderness before they went. Was that to be Janet's
last act of her darling hussyskep? It would not be consistent with our
art were we to tell you; but this much is certain, that Janet Dodds went
down Cranstoun's Close along with her beloved Tammas, that shortly after
she was plunged by him into the said deep hole of the loch, and cruelly
left there to sink or swim, while he hastened back to tell his new love,
Mrs. Blyth, how desperately he had done her bidding. But sometimes
running away has a bad look; and it happened that as Thomas was hurrying
up the dark close, he met a neighbour brother of the craft, who cried to
him, "What, ho! Tammas Dodds; whaur frae and whaur tae, man?" To which,
seeing how the act of running away would look in the Justiciary Court,
he replied with wonderful invention for the moment, that Janet had
fallen into the deep pool of the loch, and that though he had
endeavoured to get her out, he had failed, by reason of his not being
able to swim, and that he was running to get some one to help to save
her, whereupon he entreated his brother craftsman to go with him to the
spot, and help him to rescue his beloved wife, if she weren't yet dead.
So away they went, in a great hurry, but to no purpose; for when they
came to the said pool, no vestige of a creature being therein they could
see, except some air-bubbles reflecting the moonbeams, and containing,
no doubt, the living breath of the drowned woman.

Nor when the terrible news was spread through the city, and a boat and
drags were made to do their uttermost, under the most willing hands,
could the body be found. It was known that the bank there was pretty
steep in declivity, and the presumption was, that the body had rolled
down into the middle of the loch, where, in consequence of the muddiness
of the waters, it would be difficult to find it. The efforts were
continued next morning, and day by day, for a week, with no better
success, till at last it was resolved to wait for "the bursting of the
gall-bladder," when, no doubt, Mrs. Janet Dodds's body would rise and
swim on the top of the waters. An event this which did not occur till
about three weeks had passed; at the end of which time a crowd of people
appeared at Mr. Dodds's door, bearing a corpse in a white sheet. It was
received by the disconsolate Thomas with becoming resignation, and laid
on the bed, even the marriage-bed, realizing that strange meeting of two
ends which equalizes pain and pleasure, and reduces the product to
_nil_. Nor were many hours allowed to pass when, decayed and defaced as
it was, it was consigned to a coffin without Mr. Dodds being able to
bring his resolution to the sticking point of trying to recognise in the
confused mass of muscle and bone, forming what was once a face, the
lineaments of her who had been once his pride, and now, by his own act,
had become his shame and condemnation in the sight of Heaven. Next day
she was consigned to the tomb, in so solemn a manner, that if man were
not man, one would have had a difficulty in recognising in that gentle
hand that held the head-cord, and dropped it so softly on the coffin,
the same member which drove the innocent victim into the deep waters.

There is a continuous progress in all things; a fact which we know only
after we get hold of the clue. And so, when Mrs. Mary Blyth appeared as
Mrs. Mary Dodds, in room of the domesticated Jenny, it was in perfect
accordance with the law of cause and effect. No doubt they did their
best to be happy, as all creatures do, even the devil's children, only
in a wrong shaft; but they had made that fearful miscalculation, which
is the wages of sin, when they counted upon conscience as a pimp to
their pleasures, in place of a king's-evidence against them, that king
being the Lord of heaven and earth. And so it turned out in the course
of several years, that, as their love lost its fervour, their respective
monitors acquired greater power in pleading the cause of her who was
dead, and convincing them, against their will (for the all-powerful wish
has no virtue here), that they had done a cruel thing, for which they
were amenable to an avenging guardian of the everlasting element of good
in nature's dualism. Yet, strange enough, each of the two kept his and
her own secret. Their hearts burned, even as the fire which consumes the
wicked, under the smother of a forced silence - itself a torment and an
agony; yea, neither of the two would mention the name of Jenny Dodds for
the entire world. And there was more than a mutual fear that one should
know what the other thought. Each was under a process of exculpation and
inculpation - a mutual blaming of each other in their hearts, without
ever yet a word said to indicate their thoughts. It was the quarrel of
devils, who make the lesser crime a foil to show the greater, and call
it a virtue for the reason that they would rather be the counterfeits of
good than the base metal of evil; yet with no advantage, for hypocrisy
is only the glow which conceals the worm in its retreat within it. The
plea of the wife was, that she was courted by the man, and that although
she might have wished Jenny out of the way, and hinted as much, she
never meant actual murder; while his, again, was the old Barnwell
charge, that his better nature had been corrupted by the woman, and that
he did it at her suggestion, and under the influence of her siren power.
They thus got gradually into that state of feeling by which the runaway
convicts from a penal settlement were actuated, when, toiling away
through endless brakes and swamps where neither meat nor drink could be
procured, they were so maddened by hunger, that each, with a concealed
knife under his sleeve, watched his neighbour for an opportunity to
strike; nor could one dare to fall behind, without the suspicion being
raised in the minds of his companions, that he was to execute his
purpose when they were off their guard. So like, in other respects too;
for these men, afraid to speak their thoughts of each other, journeyed
on in deep silence, and each was ready to immolate his friend at the
altar of selfishness, changed into a bloodthirsty Dagon by the fiends
Hunger and Thirst.

The years were now to be counted as seven since Janet Dodds was plunged
into the deep pool of the North Loch, and the state of mind of the
married criminals, which we have tried to describe, had been growing and
growing, for two of these years, as if it threatened to get stronger the
older they grew, and the nearer the period of judgment. One morning when
they were in bed - for even yet, while they concealed their thoughts from
each other, and the name of Jenny Dodds was a condemned word in their
vocabulary, even as the sacred name among the Romans, they had evinced
no spoken enmity to each other - they heard a tirl at the door. The hour
was early, and the douce genius of the grey dawn was deliberating with
herself whether it was time to give place to her advancing sister, the
morning. Mrs. Mary Dodds rose to answer the knock, and Thomas listened
with natural curiosity to know who the early visitor was, and what was
wanted. He heard a suppressed scream of fear from his wife, and the next
moment she came rushing into the room; yet the never a word she uttered,
and her lips were so white and dry that you might have supposed that her
silence was the result of organic inability. Nor even when she got into
bed again, and tried to hide her head with the bed-clothes, did her
terror diminish, or her lips become more obedient to the feeling within;
so that Thomas knew not what to think, except it was that she had seen a
ghost - not an unnatural supposition at a time when occult causes and
spiritual appearances were as undoubted as the phenomena of the electric
telegraph are in our day. But he was not destined to be left many
minutes more in ignorance of the cause of Mrs. Mary Dodds's terror, for,
upon listening, he heard some one come into the kitchen, and bolt the
door on the inside - so much for his ears; then he turned his eyes to the
kitchen, into which he could, as well as the light of the grey dawn
would permit, see from where he lay; and what did he see?

"How comes it? whence this mimic shape?
In look and lineament so like our kind.
You might accost the spectral thing, and say,
'Good e'en t'ye.'"

No other than the figure of Mrs. Janet Dodds herself. Yes, there she was
in her old grey dress, busy taking off that plaid which Thomas knew so
well, and hanging the same upon the peg, where she had hung it so often
for five long years. Thomas was now as completely deprived of the power
of speech as she who lay, equally criminal as himself, alongside of him;
but able at least to look, or rather, unable to shut their eyes, they
watched the doings of the strange morning visitor. They saw that she was
moving about as if she were intent upon domestic work; and, by-and-by,
there she was busy with coals and sticks brought from their respective
places, putting on the fire, which she lighted with the indispensable
spunk applied to the spark in the tinder-box. Next she undertook the
sweeping of the floor, saying to herself - and they heard the words - "It
looks as if it hadna been swept for seven years." Next she washed the
dishes, which had been left on the table, indulging in the appropriate
monologue implying the necessity of the work. Thereafter it appeared as
if she was dissatisfied with the progress of the fire, for she was
presently engaged in using the bellows, every blast of which was heard
by the quaking couple in bed, and between the blasts the words came,
"Ower late for Tammas's breakfast." So the blowing continued, till it
was apparent enough, from the reflection of the flame on the wall, that
she was succeeding in her efforts. Then, having made herself sure of the
fire, she went to the proper place for the porridge goblet, took the
same and put a sufficient quantity of water therein, placed it on the
fire, and began to blow again with the same assiduity as before, with
still interjected sentences expressive of her confidence that she would
overcome the obstinacy of the coals. And overcome it she did, as
appeared from the entire lighting up of the kitchen. Was ever Border
Brownie so industrious! Some time now elapsed, as if she were sitting
with due patience till the water should boil. Thereafter she rose, and
they saw her cross the kitchen to the lobby, where the meal was kept,
then return with a bowl containing what she no doubt considered a
sufficient quantity. The stirring utensil called a "theedle" had also
got into its proper place, and by-and-by they heard the sound of the
same as it beat upon the bottom and sides, guided by an experienced
hand, and, every now and then, the sweltering and totling of the pot.
This process was now interrupted by the getting of the grey basin into
which the porridge behoved to be poured; and poured it was, the process
being followed by the sound of "the clauting o' the laggan," so familiar
to Scotch ears. "Now it's ready for him," said the figure, as it moved
across the kitchen again, to get the spoon and the bowl of milk, both of
which they saw her place beside the basin.

All things being thus completed according to the intention of the
industrious worker, a period of silence intervened, as if she had been
taking a rest in the chair which stood by the fire. A most ominous
interlude, for every moment the couple in bed expected that she would
enter the bedroom, were it for nothing else than to "intimate
breakfast;" an intimation which, if one could have judged by their erect
hair and the sweat that stood in big drops on their brows, they were by
no means prepared for. They were not to be subjected to this fearful
trial, for the figure (so we must persist in calling it) was seen again
to cross the kitchen, take down the plaid, and adjust it over the head
according to the manner of the times. They then heard her draw the bolt,
open the door, and shut the same again after her as she departed. She
was gone.

Mr. Thomas Dodds and his wife now began to be able to breathe more
freely. The hair resumed its flexibility, and the sweat disappeared;
but, strange as it may seem, they never exchanged a word with each other
as to who the visitor was, nor as to the morning's work she had so
industriously and silently (with the exception of her monologues)
executed. Too certain in their convictions as to the identity, whether
in spirit or body, of the figure with that of her they had so cruelly
put out of the way, they seemed to think it needless to question each
other; and, independently of this, the old terror of the conscience was
sufficient to seal their lips now, as it had done for a period before.
Each of them supposed that the visitor was sent for the special purpose
of some particular avengement of the crime upon the other; the
appearance in so peaceful a way, in the meantime, being merely a
premonition to show them that their consciences were not working in
vain; and if Thomas was the greater sinner, which he no doubt suspected,
in spite of himself, he might place against that conviction the fact
that the inscrutable visitor had shown him the kindness at least of
preparing his breakfast, and entirely overlooking the morning
requirements of his spouse. Under these thoughts they rose and repaired
with faltering step and fearful eyes to the kitchen. There everything
was in the order they had anticipated from what they had seen and heard.
Each looked with a shudder at the basin of porridge as if it had been
invested with some terrible charm - nay, might it not have been
poisoned? - a thought which rushed instantaneously into the head of
Thomas, and entirely put to flight the prior hypothesis that he had been
favoured by this special gift of cookery. The basin was accordingly laid
aside by hands that trembled to touch it, and fear was a sufficient
breakfast for both of them on that most eventful morning.

This occurrence, as may readily be supposed, was kept a profound secret.
They both saw that it might be the forerunner of divine means to bring
their evil deeds to light; and, under this apprehension, their
taciturnity and mutual discontent, if not growing hatred, continued,
broken only by occasional growls and curses, and the ejaculations forced
out by the inevitable circumstances of their connection. The effect of
the morning visit was meanwhile most apparent upon the man who committed
the terrible act. He could not remain in the house, which, even in their
happiest condition, was slovenly kept, showing everywhere the want of
the skilled hands of that queen of housewives, Mrs. Janet Dodds - so
ill-requited for her devotion to her husband. Nay, he felt all this as a
reproof to him, and sorely and bitterly lamented the fatal act whereby
he had deprived of life the best of wives, and the most honest and
peaceful of womankind. Then the awe of divine vengeance deepened these
shadows of the soul till he became moody and melancholy, walking hither
and thither without an object, and in secluded places, looking fearfully
around him as if he expected every moment the spectre visitor of the
morning to appear before him. Nor was he less miserable at home, where
the growing hatred made matters worse and worse every hour, and where,
when the grey dawn came, he expected another visit and another scene of
the same description as the last.

Nearly a week had thus passed, and it was Sabbath morning. The
tinsmiths' hammers were silent, the noisy games of the urchins were
hushed, the street of the Bow resounded only occasionally to the sound
of a foot - all Edinburgh was, in short, under the solemnity enjoined by
the Calvinism so much beloved by the people; and surely the day might
have been supposed to be held in such veneration by ministering spirits,
sent down to earth to execute the purposes of Heaven, that no visit of
the feared shadow would disturb even the broken rest of the wicked. So
perhaps thought our couple; but their thoughts belied them, for just
again, as the dawn broke over the tops of the high houses, the
well-known tirl was heard at the door. Who was to open it? For days the
mind of the wife had been made up. She would not face that figure again;
no, if all the powers of the world were there to compel her; and as for
Thomas, conscience had reduced the firmness of a man who once upon a
time could kill to a condition of fear and trembling. Yet terrified as
he was, he considered that he was here under the obligation to obey
powers even higher than his conscience, and disobedience might bring
upon him some evil greater than that under which he groaned. So up he
got, trembling in every limb, and proceeding to the door, opened the
same. What he saw may be surmised, but what he felt no one ever knew,
for the one reason that he had never the courage to tell it, and for the
other that no man or woman was ever placed in circumstances from which
they could draw any conclusion which could impart even a distant
analogy. This much, however, was known: Thomas retreated instantly to
bed, and the visitor, in the same suit of hodden-grey, again entered,
passed the bolt, took off her plaid, hung it up, and began the duties
which she thought were suited to the day and the hour. So much being
thus alike, the couple in the bedroom no doubt augured a repetition of
the old process. They were right, and they were wrong. Their eyes were
fixed upon her, and watched her movements; but the watch was that of the
charmed eye, which is said to be without motive. They saw her once more
go deliberately and tentily through the old process of putting on the
fire, and they heard again the application of the bellows, every blast
succeeding another with the regularity of a clock, until the kitchen was
illuminated by the rising flame. This was all that could be called a
repetition; for in place of going for the porridge goblet, she went


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Online LibraryVariousWilson's Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Volume XXIII → online text (page 4 of 18)