A CHILD'S TRAGEDY
No one in Thrums ever got a word from Aaron Latta about how he spent
those ten days, and Tommy and Elspeth, whom he brought back with him,
also tried to be reticent, but some of the women were too clever for
them. Jean and Aaron did not meet again. Her first intimation that he
had come she got from Shovel, who said that a little high-shouldered man
in black had been inquiring if she was dead, and was now walking up and
down the street, like one waiting. She sent her children out to him, but
he would not come up. He had answered Tommy roughly, but when Elspeth
slipped her hand into his, he let it stay there, and he instructed her
to tell Jean Myles that he would bury her in the Thrums cemetery and
bring up her bairns. Jean managed once to go to the window and look down
at him, and by and by he looked up and saw her. They looked long at each
other, and then he turned away his head and began to walk up and down
At Tilliedrum the coffin was put into a hearse and thus conveyed to
Monypenny, Aaron and the two children sitting on the box-seat. Someone
said, "Jean Myles boasted that when she came back to Thrums it would be
in her carriage and pair, and she has kept her word," and the saying is
still preserved in that Bible for week-days of which all little places
have their unwritten copy, one of the wisest of books, but nearly every
text in it has cost a life.
About a score of men put on their blacks and followed the hearse from
the warper's house to the grave. Elspeth wanted to accompany Tommy, but
Aaron held her back, saying, quietly, "In this part, it's only men that
go to burials, so you and me maun bide at name," and then she cried, no
one understood why, except Tommy. It was because he would see Thrums
first; but he whispered to her, "I promise to keep my eyes shut and no
look once," and so faithfully did he keep his promise on the whole that
the smith held him by the hand most of the way, under the impression
that he was blind.
But he had opened his eyes at the grave, when a cord was put into his
hand, and then he wept passionately, and on his way back to Monypenny,
whether his eyes were open or shut, what he saw was his mother being
shut up in a black hole and trying for ever and ever to get out. He ran
to Elspeth for comfort, but in the meantime she had learned from
Blinder's niece that graves are dark and cold, and so he found her
sobbing even like himself. Tommy could never bear to see Elspeth
crying, and he revealed his true self in his way of drying her tears.
"It will be so cold in that hole," she sobbed.
"No," he said, "it's warm."
"It will be dark."
"No, it's clear."
"She would like to get out."
"No, she was terrible pleased to get in."
It was characteristic of him that he soon had Elspeth happy by arguments
not one of which he believed himself; characteristic also that his own
grief was soothed by the sound of them. Aaron, who was in the garret
preparing their bed, had told the children that they must remain indoors
to-day out of respect to their mother's memory (to-morrow morning they
could explore Thrums); but there were many things in that kitchen for
them to look at and exult over. It had no commonplace ceiling, the
couples, or rafters, being covered with the loose flooring of a romantic
garret, and in the rafters were several great hooks, from one of which
hung a ham, and Tommy remembered, with a thrill which he communicated to
Elspeth, that it is the right of Thrums children to snip off the ham as
much as they can remove with their finger-nails and roast it on the ribs
of the fire. The chief pieces of furniture were a dresser, a corner
cupboard with diamond panes, two tables, one of which stood beneath the
other, but would have to come out if Aaron tried to bake, and a bed
with a door. These two did not know it, but the room was full of
memories of Jean Myles. The corner cupboard had been bought by Aaron at
a roup because she said she would like to have one; it was she who had
chosen the six cups and saucers with the blue spots on them. A
razor-strop, now hard as iron, hung on a nail on the wall; it had not
been used since the last time Aaron strutted through the Den with his
sweetheart. One day later he had opened the door of the bird-cage, which
still stood in the window, and let the yellow yite go. Many things were
where no woman would have left them: clothes on the floor with the nail
they had torn from the wall; on a chair a tin basin, soapy water and a
flannel rag in it; horn spoons with whistles at the end of them were
anywhere--on the mantelpiece, beneath the bed; there were drawers that
could not be opened because their handles were inside. Perhaps the
windows were closed hopelessly also, but this must be left doubtful; no
one had ever tried to open them.
The garret where Tommy and Elspeth were to sleep was reached by a ladder
from the hallan; when you were near the top of the ladder your head hit
a trap-door and pushed it open. At one end of the garret was the bed,
and at the other end were piled sticks for firewood and curious
dark-colored slabs whose smell the children disliked until Tommy said,
excitedly, "Peat!" and then they sniffed reverently.
It was Tommy, too, who discovered the tree-tops of the Den, and Elspeth
seeing him gazing in a transport out at the window cried, "What is it,
"Promise no to scream," he replied, warningly. "Well, then, Elspeth
Sandys, that's where the Den is!"
Elspeth blinked with awe, and anon said, wistfully, "Tommy, do you see
that there? That's where the Den is!"
"It were me what told you," cried Tommy, jealously.
"But let me tell you, Tommy!"
"Well, then, you can tell me."
"That there is the Den, Tommy!"
Oh, that to-morrow were here! Oh, that Shovel could see these two
Here is another splendid game, T. Sandys, inventor. The girl goes into
the bed, the boy shuts the door on her, and imitates the sound of a
train in motion. He opens the door and cries, "Tickets, please." The
girl says, "What is the name of this place?" The boy replies, "It's
Thrums!" There is more to follow, but the only two who have played the
game always roared so joyously at this point that they could get no
"Oh, to-morrow, come quick, quick!"
"Oh, poor Shovel!"
To-morrow came, and with it two eager little figures rose and gulped
their porridge, and set off to see Thrums. They were dressed in the
black clothes Aaron Latta had bought for them in London, and they had
agreed just to walk, but when they reached the door and saw the
tree-tops of the Den they--they ran. Would you not like to hold them
back? It is a child's tragedy.
They went first into the Den, and the rocks were dripping wet, all the
trees, save the firs, were bare, and the mud round a tiny spring pulled
off one of Elspeth's boots.
"Tommy," she cried, quaking, "that narsty puddle can't not be the Cuttle
Well, can it?"
"No, it ain't," said Tommy, quickly, but he feared it was.
"It's c-c-colder here than London," Elspeth said, shivering, and Tommy
was shivering too, but he answered, "I'm--I'm--I'm warm."
The Den was strangely small, and soon they were on a shabby brae where
women in short gowns came to their doors and men in night-caps sat down
on the shafts of their barrows to look at Jean Myles's bairns.
"What does yer think?" Elspeth whispered, very doubtfully.
"They're beauties," Tommy answered, determinedly.
Presently Elspeth cried, "Oh, Tommy, what a ugly stair! Where is the
beauty stairs as is wore outside for show?"
This was one of them and Tommy knew it. "Wait till you see the west
town end," he said bravely; "it's grand." But when they were in the west
town end, and he had to admit it, "Wait till you see the square," he
said, and when they were in the square, "Wait," he said, huskily, "till
you see the town-house." Alas, this was the town-house facing them, and
when they knew it, he said hurriedly, "Wait till you see the Auld Licht
They stood long in front of the Auld Licht Kirk, which he had sworn was
bigger and lovelier than St. Paul's, but--well, it is a different style
of architecture, and had Elspeth not been there with tears in waiting,
Tommy would have blubbered. "It's--it's littler than I thought," he said
desperately, "but--the minister, oh, what a wonderful big man he is!"
"Are you sure?" Elspeth squeaked.
"I swear he is."
The church door opened and a gentleman came out, a little man, boyish in
the back, with the eager face of those who live too quickly. But it was
not at him that Tommy pointed reassuringly; it was at the monster church
key, half of which protruded from his tail pocket and waggled like the
hilt of a sword.
Speaking like an old residenter, Tommy explained that he had brought his
sister to see the church, "She's ta'en aback," he said, picking out
Scotch words carefully, "because it's littler than the London kirks,
but I telled her--I telled her that the preaching is better."
This seemed to please the stranger, for he patted Tommy on the head
while inquiring, "How do you know that the preaching is better?"
"Tell him, Elspeth," replied Tommy modestly.
"There ain't nuthin' as Tommy don't know," Elspeth explained. "He knows
what the minister is like too."
"He's a noble sight," said Tommy.
"He can get anything from God he likes," said Elspeth.
"He's a terrible big man," said Tommy.
This seemed to please the little gentleman less. "Big!" he exclaimed,
irritably; "why should he be big?"
"He is big," Elspeth almost screamed, for the minister was her last
"Nonsense!" said the little gentleman. "He is--well, I am the minister."
"You!" roared Tommy, wrathfully.
"Oh, oh, oh!" sobbed Elspeth.
For a moment the Rev. Mr. Dishart looked as if he would like to knock
two little heads together, but he walked away without doing it.
"Never mind," Tommy whispered hoarsely to Elspeth. "Never mind, Elspeth,
you have me yet."
This consolation seldom failed to gladden her, but her disappointment
was so sharp to-day that she would not even look up.
"Come away to the cemetery, it's grand," he said; but still she would
not be comforted.
"And I'll let you hold my hand--as soon as we're past the houses," he
"I'll let you hold it now," he said eventually; but even then Elspeth
cried dismally, and her sobs were hurting him more than her.
He knew all the ways of getting round Elspeth, and when next he spoke it
was with a sorrowful dignity. "I didna think," he said, "as yer wanted
me never to be able to speak again; no, I didna think it, Elspeth."
She took her hands from her face and looked at him inquiringly.
"One of the stories mamma telled me and Reddy," he said, "were about a
man what saw such a beauty thing that he was struck dumb with
admiration. Struck dumb is never to be able to speak again, and I wish I
had been struck dumb when you wanted it."
"But I didn't want it!" Elspeth cried.
"If Thrums had been one little bit beautier than it is," he went on
solemnly, "it would have struck me dumb. It would have hurt me sore, but
what about that, if it pleased you!"
Then did Elspeth see what a wicked girl she had been, and when next the
two were observed by the curious (it was on the cemetery road), they
were once more looking cheerful. At the smallest provocation they
exchanged notes of admiration, such as, "Oh, Tommy, what a bonny
barrel!" or "Oh, Elspeth, I tell yer that's a dyke, and there's just
walls in London," but sometimes Elspeth would stoop hastily, pretending
that she wanted to tie her bootlace, but really to brush away a tear,
and there were moments when Tommy hung very limp. Each was trying to
deceive the other for the other's sake, and one of them was never good
at deception. They saw through each other, yet kept up the chilly game,
because they could think of nothing better, and perhaps the game was
worth playing, for love invented it.
They sat down on their mother's grave. No stone was ever erected to the
memory of Jean Myles, but it is enough for her that she lies at home.
That comfort will last her to the Judgment Day.
The man who had dug the grave sent them away, and they wandered to the
hill, and thence down the Roods, where there were so many outside stairs
not put there for show that it was well Elspeth remembered how
susceptible Tommy was to being struck dumb. For her sake he said,
"They're bonny," and for his sake she replied, "I'm glad they ain't
When within one turn of Monypenny they came suddenly upon some boys
playing at capey-dykey, a game with marbles that is only known in
Thrums. There are thirty-five ways of playing marbles, but this is the
best way, and Elspeth knew that Tommy was hungering to look on, but
without her, lest he should be accused of sweethearting. So she offered
to remain in the background.
Was she sure she shouldn't mind?
She said falteringly that of course she would mind a little, but--
Then Tommy was irritated, and said he knew she would mind, but if she
just pretended she didn't mind, he could leave her without feeling that
he was mean.
So Elspeth affected not to mind, and then he deserted her, conscience at
rest, which was his nature. But he should have remained with her. The
players only gave him the side of their eye, and a horrid fear grew on
him that they did not know he was a Thrums boy. "Dagont!" he cried to
put them right on that point, but though they paused in their game, it
was only to laugh at him uproariously. Let the historian use an oath for
once; dagont, Tommy had said the swear in the wrong place!
How fond he had been of that word! Many a time he had fired it in the
face of Londoners, and the flash had often blinded them and always him.
Now he had brought it home, and Thrums would have none of it; it was as
if these boys were jeering at their own flag. He tottered away from them
until he came to a trance, or passage, where he put his face to the wall
and forgot even Elspeth.
He had not noticed a girl pass the mouth of the trance, trying not very
successfully to conceal a brandy-bottle beneath her pinafore, but
presently he heard shouts, and looking out he saw Grizel, the Painted
Lady's child, in the hands of her tormentors. She was unknown to him, of
course, but she hit back so courageously that he watched her with
interest, until--until suddenly he retreated farther into the trance. He
had seen Elspeth go on her knees, obviously to ask God to stay the hands
and tongues of these cruel boys.
Elspeth had disgraced him, he felt. He was done with her forever. If
they struck her, serve her right.
Struck her! Struck little Elspeth! His imagination painted the picture
with one sweep of its brush. Take care, you boys, Tommy is scudding
They had not molested Elspeth as yet. When they saw and heard her
praying, they had bent forward, agape, as if struck suddenly in the
stomach. Then one of them, Francie Crabb, the golden-haired son of
Esther Auld, recovered and began to knead Grizel's back with his fists,
less in viciousness than to show that the prayer was futile. Into this
scene sprang Tommy, and he thought that Elspeth was the kneaded one. Had
he taken time to reflect he would probably have used the Thrums feint,
and then in with a left-hander, which is not very efficacious in its own
country; but being in a hurry he let out with Shovel's favorite, and
down went Francie Crabb.
"Would you!" said Tommy, threatening, when Francie attempted to rise.
He saw now that Elspeth was untouched, that he had rescued an unknown
girl, and it cannot be pretended of him that he was the boy to squire
all ladies in distress. In ordinary circumstances he might have left
Grizel to her fate, but having struck for her, he felt that he would
like to go on striking. He had also the day's disappointments to avenge.
It is startling to reflect that the little minister's height, for
instance, put an extra kick in him.
So he stood stridelegs over Francie, who whimpered, "I wouldna have
struck this one if that one hadna prayed for me. It wasna likely I would
"You shall stand it," replied Tommy, and turning to Elspeth, who had
risen from her knees, he said: "Pray away, Elspeth."
Elspeth refused, feeling that there would be something wrong in praying
from triumph, and Tommy, about to be very angry with her, had a glorious
inspiration. "Pray for yourself," he said to Francie, "and do it out
The other boys saw that a novelty promised, and now Francie need expect
no aid from them. At first he refused to pray, but he succumbed when
Tommy had explained the consequences, and illustrated them.
Tommy dictated: "Oh, God, I am a sinner. Go on."
Francie not only said it, but looked it.
"And I pray to you to repent me, though I ain't worthy," continued
"And I pray to you to repent me, though I ain't worthy," growled
Francie. (It was the arrival of ain't in Thrums.)
Tommy considered, and then: "I thank Thee, O God," he said, "for telling
this girl--this lassie--to pray for me."
Two gentle taps helped to knock this out of Francie.
Being an artist, Tommy had kept his best for the end (and made it up
first). "And lastly," he said, "I thank this boy for thrashing me--I
mean this here laddie. Oh, may he allus be near to thrash me when I
strike this other lassie again. Amen."
When it was all over Tommy looked around triumphantly, and though he
liked the expression on several faces, Grizel's pleased him best. "It
ain't no wonder you would like to be me, lassie!" he said, in an
"I don't want to be you, you conceited boy," retorted the Painted Lady's
child hotly, and her heat was the greater because the clever little
wretch had read her thoughts aright. But it was her sweet voice that
"You're English!" he cried.
"So are you," broke in a boy offensively, and then Tommy said to Grizel
loftily, "Run away; I'll not let none on them touch you."
"I am not afraid of them," she rejoined, with scorn, "and I shall not
let you help me, and I won't run." And run she did not; she walked off
leisurely with her head in the air, and her dignity was beautiful,
except once when she made the mistake of turning round to put out her
But, alas! in the end someone ran. If only they had not called him
"English." In vain he fired a volley of Scotch; they pretended not to
understand it. Then he screamed that he and Shovel could fight the lot
of them. Who was Shovel? they asked derisively. He replied that Shovel
was a bloke who could lick any two of them--and with one hand tied
behind his back.
No sooner had he made this proud boast than he went white, and soon two
disgraceful tears rolled down his cheeks. The boys saw that for some
reason unknown his courage was gone, and even Francie Crabb began to
turn up his sleeves and spit upon his hands.
Elspeth was as bewildered as the others, but she slipped her hand into
his and away they ran ingloriously, the foe too much astounded to jeer.
She sought to comfort him by saying (and it brought her a step nearer
womanhood), "You wasn't feared for yourself, you wasn't; you was just
feared they would hurt me."
But Tommy sobbed in reply, "That ain't it. I bounced so much about the
Thrums folk to Shovel, and now the first day I'm here I heard myself
bouncing about Shovel to Thrums folk, and it were that what made me
cry. Oh, Elspeth, it's--it's not the same what I thought it would be!"
Nor was it the same to Elspeth, so they sat down by the roadside and
cried with their arms round each other, and any passer-by could look who
had the heart. But when night came, and they were in their garret bed,
Tommy was once more seeking to comfort Elspeth with arguments he
disbelieved, and again he succeeded. As usual, too, the make-believe
made him happy also.
"Have you forgot," he whispered, "that my mother said as she would come
and see us every night in our bed? If yer cries, she'll see as we're
terrible unhappy, and that will make her unhappy too."
"Oh, Tommy, is she here now?"
"Whisht! She's here, but they don't like living ones to let on as they
Elspeth kept closer to Tommy, and with their heads beneath the blankets,
so as to stifle the sound, he explained to her how they could cheat
their mother. When she understood, he took the blankets off their faces
and said in the darkness in a loud voice:
"It's a grand place, Thrums!"
Elspeth replied in a similar voice, "Ain't the town-house just big!"
Said Tommy, almost chuckling, "Oh, the bonny, bonny Auld Licht Kirk!"
Said Elspeth, "Oh, the beauty outside stairs!"
Said Tommy, "The minister is so long!"
Said Elspeth, "The folk is so kind!"
Said Tommy, "Especially the laddies!"
"Oh, I is so happy!" cried Elspeth.
"Me too!" cried Tommy.
"My mother would be so chirpy if she could jest see us!" Elspeth said,
"But she canna!" replied Tommy, slyly pinching Elspeth in the rib.
Then they dived beneath the blankets, and the whispering was resumed.
"Did she hear, does yer think?" asked Elspeth.
"Every word," Tommy replied. "Elspeth, we've done her!"
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