Read CHAPTER XVII of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on ReadCentral.com.

“THE SWAP O’ RHYMING WARE”

The day following this event I was called into the Mearns to look after some property which by reason of an entail had been thrust into my hands. Nancy had planned to accompany me, but the post brought her news that a German cousin of royalty, who was making a tour of the country, was intending a visit to the lace-making place on the Burnside, and Father Michel’s word being for her presence at Stair, she gave over the trip, and watched me set off with Hugh Pitcairn, a bit saddened, I thought, at the pleasure of the jaunt being taken from her.

“A fine lassie!” Hugh said, looking back at her from the coach window, “who will do what’s right, as she sees it, whether she gains or loses by it herself. A woman whose word can be believed as another’s oath; who has a thought for the general good, apart from her own emotions; with something of the old Roman in her sense of justice. Ah,” he went on in his egotism, “she shows training. All women should be taught the law something might be made of them then.”

I was employed in looking over some unread mail which I had with me while Hugh was laying these flattering unctions to his soul, and came at this point upon a letter from one Hastings, an American from the village of Boston in North America, offering in a kind sure way to marry my daughter Nancy if he could have my consent. He was a flat-faced, bigoted Anglo-Saxon, and a creature seemingly designed to drive a woman of any wideness of judgment into a frenzy, and I grinned with delight as I handed the letter to Hugh for his perusal.

He read it stolidly and returned it to me, uncommented upon, but further down the road I could see he was turning Nancy’s affairs over in his mind, for he broke out, with some disjointedness:

“I have always held it a wise arrangement of nature to make women of notable mentality of a dry and unseductive nature, and pretty women fools; for if one person held beauty and charm as well as power and grasp, there is no telling but she could overthrow governments and work a wide and general mischief. We’ve much to thank God for,” he continued, “that Nancy Stair is as she is.”

The third day of my stay at Alton I received a special post which put me into some fret of mind. The letter was from Nancy, and is set below entire:

“MY VERY DEAREST:

“I miss you and am lonesome; for the lady is not coming about the
lace-making, although she sent a command for many pounds’ worth of
work, and Father Michel is much pleasured by that.

“I have just had a letter from Janet McGillavorich. ’Seeing that ye write,’ she says, ’ye may be interested in a plowman-poet that we have down here, whose name has made some noise in this part of the country. His name is Burns, an Ayr man, and the gentry are a’ makin’ much of him. Well, any time ye’ve the fancy, ye can look out of the spence window and see heedless Rab Burns, his eyes a-shine like twa stars, coming over the braeside, drunk as a laird, roaring out, ‘How are thy servants, blessed, O Lord,’ having spent the night Gude alane kens wheer. God kens and most of the neighbors, too, when you come to think about it, for the lad has a Biblical shamelessness for his misdeeds, and what he forgets to tell himself (and that’s little enough) he goes home and writes out for all the parish to read. So if ye’d like a crack wi’ him, just come right down, now your father’s left ye, and I’ll have him till dinner with you, and you can bob at each ither to your heart’s content.’

“Isn’t it strange, Jock, that a thing I have wanted so long should just happen by, as it were? And so I’m off for Mauchline to-morrow, with Dickenson, whose silence bespeaks a shrewish disapproval, and will write how Mr. Burns and I get on at some soon date.

“Give my love to Mr. Pitcairn, and tell him the prints are full of
his new book.

“Danvers Carmichael has not been here since the time you know of,
and the Duke of Borthwicke is on some sudden business to the
Highlands.

“With my heart held in my hands toward you,

“Your own child,

[Signed: Nancy Stair]

In a green tabby velvet, laced with silver, and a huge feathered hat, Nancy set out from Stair about eight in the morning with Dame Dickenson in the Stair coach, driven by Patsy MacColl. By a change of horse at Balregal, she arrived at Mauchline just as the lamp-lighter was going his rounds, and the coach was turning by the manse when a serving-man, evidently heavy with the business, came toward the vehicle, signalling.

“Are ye for Mrs. McGillavorich?” cries he.

“Ay,” Patsy answered.

“Well, I’m put here to tell ye that her house fell into the cellar of itself the morn, and she’s at the ‘King’s Arms,’ where ’tis her wish your young lady should be fetched at once.”

Amazed at this sudden announcement, Patsy drove a short distance farther, where, as directed by the stranger, he stopped before a small two-story dwelling, unpretentious, but exceedingly clean and respectable in appearance, where Mrs. Todd, the landlady, showed Nancy into the living room.

It was a quaint old chamber, with wooden walls, beamed ceiling and a great stone fireplace, the lugs coming out on each side to form a seat, with candles lighted in a row upon the mantel-shelf. There was a spinet in one corner; a set of shelves filled with shining cups and saucers between the low white-curtained windows; while a fire from huge logs filled the chimney place and threw a dancing light over the polished floor, half hidden by a thick home-spun carpet, and as was the custom of the time, lighted candles had been set between the drawn white curtains to guide any uncertain traveller to his destination.

When Nancy entered, blinded by the sudden light, it was her thought that the apartment was empty, but here the devil had taken his throw in the game, for sitting in the far corner at a small table, with a jug and writing materials between them, were two men, the darker of whom would every little while scribble something off, handing that which he had written to the other, who would roar aloud and clap him on the shoulder, and both would drink again.

Nancy stood irresolute before the fire, not knowing what to do, when the darker man came forward from his place, as though to offer assistance, but at sight of her he drew back in amazement, and as Mrs. Todd bustled into the room at the moment, with many courtesies, to escort her up to Mrs. McGillavorich, no word passed between the two; but the man stood watching after her as she ascended the winding stairs.

“We’re in a frightful state, my dear,” Mrs. McGillavorich cried to her from the landing. “A frightful state. But the house went down too late to let ye know that for your own comfort ye’d best stay at home. We’ll make ourselves comfortable here; and I’ve ordered a chicken pie for you, which is browned to a turn, and a jelly stir-about; and this evening we’ll have a merry time, for they say Burns is in the house this instant.”

“Ah,” she went on, peering from the window, “ye got here just in the nick of time; for the wind’s roaring from the west, and when a storm comes from that direction it’s like to set by us for a long time.”

After the supper, served in her own apartment, was by with, the strange old lady went on:

“And now we’ll go down to the spence, where ye can meet Mr. Burns. And because your father’s a kent man in these parts and your own name sounding through the country as well, I’ll give out that ye’re my niece, and it’s in that way ye can be known.”

So, attended by Dickenson, carrying her many wraps and comforters, with Nancy following, Mrs. McGillavorich entered upon Burns and his companion, whom they found drinking and writing exactly as Nancy had left them.

“I’d like to make you known to my niece, Miss McGillavorich,” said Mrs. Janet, advancing toward him. “From Edinburgh,” she added.

He threw a hasty unconvinced glance at Nancy, but bowed low as one used to gentle ways.

“I am new come from Edinburgh myself,” he said, after presenting his friend, whom he named Mr. Hamilton. “It’s a braw town. Have ye lived there long?” he asked.

“Some years,” Nancy answered; “although I was not born there.”

“There are fine country places all about it, too,” he continued, “out the Pentland way.”

“Yes,” she answered; “I’ve seen them.”

“And do you know many people in the city? I’ve met in with some notable folk on my sojourn there. The Monboddos, the Glencairns, and the Gordons are grand people.”

“I’ve heard their names,” Nancy returned, in a non-committal way.

“They’ve been kind to me,” he went on, with a bit of conceit in his manner, “most kind. The ladies especially,” he added.

“So?” said Nancy. “That must be very comforting to you,” she added, with a twinkle in her eye.

“It is,” was the unexpected answer, given with a droll look. “And I like to hear them sing my songs. Have ye heard Bonnie Dundee? It’s not printed yet.”

“No,” she answered, “but I could catch it. I sing a little. Could ye sooth it to me, Mr. Burns?”

“Nay, nay,” said Janet, “no music or singing yet; not till Mr. Burns has given us something of his own. We’ll have Dickenson brew us a bowl of lemon punch, and we’ll draw the curtains and gather the fire, and Mr. Burns will line us the Cotter’s Saturday Night, the sensiblest thing writ for a long time, before ye sing us a song, my dear.”

And the old lady being set, there was nothing to do but to abide her way of it; and thus by the fire, with the elements raising a din outside, the five of them listened to the great man, who was not too great, however, to turn the whole battery of his compelling personality upon Nancy Stair, nor to look at her from the uplifted region in which he dwelt during the recital to see what effect he had upon her, for he had already learned “his power over ladies of quality.”

God knows if any of those, even Burns himself, who were gathered about the fire that night dreamed that, as I believe now, those lines would echo down the ages, nor that the time was coming when that evening might be a thing to boast upon and hand the memory of to children and to children’s children as a precious heirloom:

“November chill blaws loud wi’ angry sugh:
The shortening winter-day is at its close;
The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh,
The black’ning trains o’craws to their repose:

And at the end, fed perhaps by the adulation of their faces, as well as their spoken words, he laid some open flattery to himself upon the way he’d been received in town and at the noise his name was making there at the time, and stirred Nancy’s sense of humor, which, Heaven is a witness, needed little to move it at any time.

“A’weel, a’weel,” she said at length, “I make verses myself, Mr. Burns.”

“Say you so!” he cried; “and that’s a surprise to me! Would you word us one of your poems?” he asked, laughingly.

“I sing mine,” she says, going over to the spinet.

“And that’s finer still!” he cried.

“They’re not like yours,” an apology in her voice; “just off-hand rhymes like, that come to my head on the moment. If you could sooth me Bonnie Dundee now, I might rhyme something to it,” and the minute he began, she said:

“Oh! I know that ’tis an old tune, like this” and striking a chord or two, she was off before the rest had any guess of her intention, with a merry devil in her eye and her face glowing like a flower in the firelight:

“At ‘The King’s Arms’ in Mauchline, Rab Burns said to me,
‘I’m just back from Edinbro’ as you may see,
Where all the gay world has been bowin’ to me,
For I am the lad who wrote Bonnie Dundee!
And just for a smile or a glance of my eye
The lassies are ready to lie down and die;
So don’t give yourself airs, but just bow before me,
For I am the lad who wrote Bonnie Dundee!’

“Now a’weel, Mr. Burns, I have somewhat to say
I’ve sweethearts as many as you any day;
And I’ve eyes of my own, as you’ve noticed, maybe,
If you’ve glanced from the author of Bonnie Dundee!
And Duncan of Monteith my suitor has been,
And Stewart of MacBride’s, who has served to the Queen.
And if any one bows, it will sure not be me,
For I don’t give a groat who wrote Bonnie Dundee!”

The laugh which followed this found Burns at her side, every passion in his inflammable nature alight.

“Aye,” he cried, “ye have the verse makin’. But the e’s are easy. Why didn’t ye try the Doon. ’Tis as celebrate.”

“Sure,” she answered, “there are rhymes begging for that. Tune, soon, rune, June

“And loon,” Burns threw in, daffing with her. “Ye wouldn’t be forgetting that.”

“It was not my intention to be leaving the author of the piece out of it,” she threw back at him, laughing, at which Burns gave her a look.

“You’d better mend your manners,” he cried, gaily, “or some day I’ll take my pen in hand to you, and then, may the Lord have mercy on your soul!” adding low, “Mistress Nancy Stair!

Some consternation followed upon this, for it was unknown by any of them that he had seen Nancy in Edinbro’, and after the talk was readjusted a bit to the news, the five of them, with Mrs. Todd listening on the other side of the door, sat till hard upon one o’clock, with uplifted minds, insensible to time or weather.

The extreme disorder caused by the wind, for the storm had risen, at length recalled them to themselves, and Mrs. Todd, who worshiped the great poet, came in.

“You must lie here to-night, Mr. Burns,” she said hospitably; and as the poet lighted Nancy up the stair:

“Good night,” he cried, “good night!” and then, because there was a devil in the man whenever he looked at a pretty woman, “I’ll have no sleep to-night. I’m in some far-up region where poems are made and where all the women are like you!”

For three days the horrid weather kept them housebound; three days in which Nancy and Robert Burns lived in dangerous nearness to each other, considering her youth, her temperament, and the passion of admiration which she held for him; three days of poetry and folk-tales and ballad-singing, with the man’s dangerous magnetism at work between them.

It was on the afternoon of this third day that a girl passed the window near which Burns sat, and beckoning to him, he slammed out into the storm, with no prefacing word to his act whatever, leaving Nancy staring after him in amazement, as she said to Mr. Hamilton:

“Do you not think his manners are strange?”

“The Edinburgh people say that he had them straight from his Maker,” Mr. Hamilton answered, evading an opinion of his own.

“It’s no saying much for the breeding of the Almighty,” she answered, off-hand, with a smile, and she held silence concerning the matter, although it was near upon four days before Burns entered the inn door again, his face pale and haggard, his eyes sunken, and lines of dissipation upon his handsome face, which every one by courtesy passed over uncommented. He brought a volume of Shenstone with him, which he laid before Nancy as a gift.

“I am bringing you one of the great of the earth,” he said, gloomily regarding the book, and Nancy, who read his thoughts and wanted from the heart to cheer him, said:

“I whiles wonder at you, Mr. Burns, and the way you go about admiring every tinker-peddler who tosses a rhyme together. Ye’ve no sense of your own value at times. Do you know,” she went on, fair glorious to see in her enthusiasm glowering down at him “Do you know that when this man Shenstone’s grave is as flat to the earth as my hand, and his name forgot, people will be building monuments to you and raising schools for your memory. Why,” she cried, in an ecstasy, “’tis you that have made our old mother Scotland able to hold up her head and look the whole world in the face when the word ‘Poetry’ is called.”

“Ye think so?” he asked, the tears big in his eyes, his gloom put behind him. “It’s music to hear ye praise me so,” and he rose and leaned against the mantel-shelf, his face irradiated by its usual expression.

“Perhaps,” he began with some hope, “when I say farewell to rakery once and for all, I may make something fine yet. Most men, Mistress Stair, shake hands with that irresponsible wench called Pleasure, but I have dallied too long, I fear, in her intoxicating society. Aye!” he finished, “Wisdom’s late upon the road!"

“Let’s make a poem of it! It sounds like one!” she cried, moving toward the spinet.

“Take your own gate,” says Burns, laughing; “I’ll follow!”

“I’ll take the first lines,” she said gayly. “’Twill throw the brunt of the rhyming on you.”

“You’re o’er thoughtful,” Burns laughed back at her, and Nancy began rhyming to an old tune the thought they had passed between them, with Burns ready with his rhymes before her lines were entirely spoken:

Nancy

“At break o’ day, one morn o’ May,
While dew lay silverin’ all the lea”;

Burns

“A lassie fair, wi’ gowden hair
Came laughing up the glen to me.”

Nancy

“Her face was like the hawthorn bloom,
Her eyes twa violets in a mist,”

Burns

“Her lips were roses of the June,
The sweetest lip’s that e’er were kissed.”

Nancy

“’O, what’s your name and where’s your hame?
My sweetest lassie, tell me true.’”

Burns

“‘My name is Pleasure,’ sir, she said,
‘And I hae come to live with you.’”

Nancy

“She took my face between her hands,
And sat her down upon my knee.”

Burns

“She put her glowing lips to mine,
And oh, but life was sweet to me.”

Nancy

“Wi’ mony a song we roved along
My arm all warm about her waist.”

Burns

“The hours drunk wi’ love’s golden wine
Unheeded ane anither chased.”

“Ah!” Nancy cried here, “That’s the Burns touch! I could never have done that!”

Nancy

“Her hair’s gay gold, in many a fold,
Unheeded on my shoulder lay.”

Burns

“Her heart beat on my very own,
And life and love were one that day.”

Nancy

“When noon was highest up in air,
An ancient man came on the road.”

Burns

“And when he saw my loving fair,
His eyes wi’ fiercest anger glowed.”

Nancy

“‘And who is this,’ he cried to me,
‘That you have ta’en wi’ you to dwell?’”

Burns

“‘Her name is Pleasure,’ sir, said I,
‘And oh, I’m sure she loves me well.’”

Nancy

“‘Rise up,’ he cried, ’no more defer
To leave a wench not over nice.’”

Burns

“‘She’s Pleasure till ye wed wi’ her,
Her name she changes then to Vice.’”

Nancy

“I got me up from where I lay,
And turned me toward the darkened land.”

Burns

“‘Adieu,’ she said, wi’ no dismay,
And waved toward me her lily hand.”

Nancy

“The time was set, and then we met,
Old Wisdom came, and now we part.”

Burns

“’Ye gang your gate, ye’ll soon forget,
Nor think,’ said she, ‘twill break my heart.’”

Nancy

“’There’s something strong within ye both,
That’s makes ye tire of such as me.”

Burns

“‘But I’m as I was made,’ she quoth,
‘And how much better, sirs, are ye?’”

“There’s a deal of philosophy in that,” cried Hamilton. “I must have a copy.”

And it was from his paper that I got the lines as I set them above.