Up in Ardmuirland
The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:
Chapter VI - Bildy
Old Widow Lamont and her spinster daughter, Robina, lived in a bit of a house on the edge of the pine wood that sheltered our presbytery from the east winds; they were consequently our nearest neighbours with the exception of Willy and Bell. They possessed a cow and a few hens, and Robina, who was a sturdy woman of forty, did the work of their small croft with occasional help from one of the males of the community. For in Ardmuirland, be it known, one neighbour helps another in return for the like service when required; thus Robina would lend a hand at hay-time, harvest, potato planting, and the rest, and would be entitled to a few days' ploughing and harrowing on her own land in compensation.
The Lamonts, though not exceedingly poor, could not be called well-to-do. The absence of a resident man in a small croft must be of necessity a difficulty; but they were upright, hard-working women, and managed to maintain themselves in a simple, frugal way. Oatmeal and potatoes were grown on the croft; bread could be obtained from the passing baker's cart in exchange for eggs; butter, and sometimes milk, could be sold to neighbours; the widow's knitted stockings fetched a fair price with the hosier in the county town; in these various ways they made ends meet.
Old-age pensions were then unheard of, and the Lamonts would have thought themselves insulted had any one suggested parish relief for the old woman; although her helpless condition would have justified it, for she never moved from her corner by the fire, to which she was carried from her bed in the morning to be borne back to bed at night. An accident which had befallen her when in the prime of life had rendered her a cripple without power to move her lower limbs.
Like many of their class, the Lamonts were full of an honest pride, and although they may have possibly felt the pinch of poverty now and again, they would have scorned to acknowledge it. By the exercise of diplomacy Penny has often managed to help them in little ways from time to time; she will visit the old woman to inquire after her health, and take with her in a neighbourly way some little delicacy in the shape of soup or pudding. At one time she tried to furnish her with some orders for stockings, but it turned out that the Lamonts considered it next door to heresy to take payment from the priest's house, and Penny's charitable attempts were frustrated. She found it better to "borrow" a few eggs occasionally (even though she was not in great need of them), and to more than pay their value in little presents--an acknowledgment of the kindness of the lenders.
"The very thing for the Lamonts!" exclaimed Val at breakfast one morning. He had been reading his letters, just delivered, and I was glancing through that day's paper. I looked up in token of interest.
"I have an application from the Inspector of the Poor," he continued, "for a quiet, reliable family, who would be willing to take charge, for payment, of a poor daft fellow. He is about thirty, and has been in this state since he was eighteen, when he had a bad fever. He is perfectly tractable, quite inoffensive, and thoroughly good-tempered. The only reason for moving him from his present home is that it is in a village, and the children tease and annoy him. I fancy the Lamonts would jump at the opportunity."
I quite agreed with him. To my mind, Robina Lamont was a match for a far more dangerous character. She would be equal in strength to many an able-bodied man. But I felt doubtful whether the arrangement would be satisfactory as regarded the old widow. She was so helpless that unless the man was actually as harmless as was supposed it might he risky to place him in such a house. I voiced my objection, but Val was not impressed by it. He had great confidence in the judgment of the Inspector--a thoroughly able man, and shrewd withal.
When the question was proposed to the Lamonts they at once warmed to the idea. It appeared that one of the lads of their own family--now long dead--had been in much the same state, though he was inclined to be unruly at times; consequently neither the widow nor her daughter felt the least apprehension of difficulties in managing their patient. Thus it came about that Bildy Gow became a member of our community.
In Scotland we have many more diminutive forms of ordinary Christian names than is the case in England. William, for example, figures as Willy, Wildy, Will, Bill, Billy, and Bildy. The variety is useful in cases, which are of frequent occurrence, where the same name belongs to grandfather, father, and son; William, Wildy, and Bill are perfectly distinct. It was as Bildy that William Gow became known among us; before long every one dropped the unnecessary surname and he was spoken of habitually as Bildy simply.
Robina brought her lodger to Mass with her in state on the very first Sunday. He was rather a good-looking fellow, tall and straight, with fresh complexion, regular features and light-brown hair and moustache. He was neatly dressed, too, for he had evidently been fitted out for his new home by the liberality of the Inspector. Beyond a shy, vacant expression, Bildy gave no evidence of mental incapacity in his appearance. He kept close to Robina when they emerged from church, and seemed to rely upon her protection with the air of a shy lad, which was rather pathetic to witness. He was not a Catholic, but he had shown such distress when Robina had told him to sit at home with her mother that they were forced to let him go to church to keep him quiet.
On further acquaintance, Bildy did not belie the good character given him by the Inspector. He was merely a grown-up child. In his youth he must have been of a thoroughly quiet, innocent nature, for he showed it in his aspect still; his character had never developed beyond that innocent adolescence, while his mind had retrograded to a state resembling early childhood. If one spoke to him on the road he at once assumed the air of an exceedingly shy bairn--frightened and embarrassed. It would have been amusing were it not so sad. I could never extract a word from him on such occasions, so overawed was he!
From the first, while looking upon Robina as the supreme authority to which he owed implicit obedience, Bildy seemed to give all his affection to the old widow. He liked nothing better than to sit opposite her by the fireside, watching the tireless swiftness of her knitting needles as they flashed in the firelight. When summoned by Robina for any duty, he would promptly comply, returning as soon as free to his favourite attraction.
I was passing by the Lamonts' house one afternoon, and as Robina was working in her garden I stopped for a chat. After asking after her mother and things in general, the conversation turned on Bildy. Robina praised him highly.
"He's as biddable as a bairn," she declared. "He carries a' the water for us frae the spring, an' takes oot the coo, an' fetches her hame as weel as I could masel'. He's nae tribble to us whateever!"
She then launched into details concerning Bildy which were very entertaining, and gave much amusement to Val over our dinner. It appeared that the poor fellow had formed a most reverential opinion of the priest on his first visit to our church for Mass. On his return home he sat by the fire smiling delightedly and murmuring to himself. They did not catch what he said, but after repeated questioning Robina found that he was quite pleased with the "chapel."
"An' yon mon!" he exclaimed. "Isna' he dressed fine? Wha's yon mon wi' the fine dress?"
"Yen's the priest," explained Robina. "Father Fleming, he's callit."
"Father Fleming! Father Fleming!" repeated Bildy over and over again, as though to familiarize himself with the sound of it.
"Aye, aye! He's the boy! He can gab, canna' he? He's the boy to tell us what to dee!" he continued in his broad Scots.
"It's extraordinary how well he behaves at Mass--or at any rate during the sermon," said Val when he heard the story. "I wish some others were as good!"
That reminded me of another anecdote. After one or two Sundays, Bildy had got familiar with the church, and was inclined to gaze about more than Robina approved of. She therefore took it upon herself to instruct him upon the sacred character of the place, and to threaten to keep him at home if he did not behave better.
"Remember, Bildy," she said as they started next Sunday, "it's the hoose o' God ye're goin' tee. Ye musna' glower aboot! Juist sit ye still an' look straicht at Father Fleming a' the time."
After that his manner was irreproachable. But one Sunday, as Penny was leaving the church after Mass, she caught sight of Bildy furiously shaking his fist--at her, she thought! So she mentioned the fact quietly to Robina, who promised to investigate the matter. It turned out that poor Bildy had so thoroughly assimilated her instructions as to the requisite behaviour in church that he had been silently reproving what he thought irreverence. He had seen a crofter whom he knew very well dozing during the sermon, and had "wagged his fist" at him--righteously indignant.
"Sleepin' i' the hoose o' God!" cried Bildy. "Yon's nae the place to sleep in! I waggit my fist, an' I sair fleggit him!"
Bildy evidently congratulated himself on having so successfully "sore frighted" the delinquent that he would never dare to behave so badly again.
Bildy's respect for Val never waned. He never caught sight of the priest, even at some little distance, but his hand flew up to his cap in salutation, and remained there until Val had seen him and had returned his salute. This would happen if he saw Val at a window of our house just the same as when outside.
Penny took quite a motherly interest in the poor afflicted fellow. Whenever he came on any errand from the Lamonts he was always given a piece of cake or fruit--anything sweet, for he had a child's taste. But although Bildy was supremely delighted, he seldom said more than "thank you, Ma'am!” I once suggested that she should refer to Val, and the experiment was successful in opening Bildy's mouth. After that the conversation would almost invariably run thus:
"Did you see Father Fleming on Sunday, Bildy?"
"Aye, aye! He's the boy! Father Fleming's the boy!"
Next to the old widow, Bildy loved the cow. She was his particular charge, and he was soon on intimate terms with her. Not only did he carry on familiar conversations with her, on his part, but it appeared that the cow made him her confidant in return. If he began to murmur something to himself as he sat by the chimney corner, they would inquire what he was talking about. It was generally arrant nonsense that he told them. Once Robina asked:
"Wha tellit ye that rubbish, Bildy?"
"The coo," he gravely answered.
On a damp, misty morning he had gone out as usual to drive the cow out to the meadow to graze. Widow Lamont, from her place opposite the window, noticed that they did not pass out in the customary way, and notified the fact to Robina. The latter accordingly ran out at once to inquire the reason of the delay. She found Bildy quietly fastening the door of the byre before returning to the house.
"Ye havna' fetched oot the coo!" she exclaimed. "Gae in an' drive her oot, Bildy!"
"Na, na," replied he, solemnly shaking his head. "She says it's ower cauld the day. She'll bide inside."
Bildy's hero-worship of my brother increased as time went by. He regularly came to Mass, and obedient to Robina's instructions sat still and looked "straicht at Father Fleming.” On one particular Sunday, when we had a priest staying with us (an old friend of Val's), the latter invited him to preach. This did not suit Bildy at all. After Mass he walked home alone, not waiting for Robina, who was chatting with her neighbours outside the church, and showed by his manner that something was amiss. Widow Lamont put down her book, in which she had been piously reading her "Prayers for Mass," and accosted him with the usual formula:
"Weel, Bildy, what kind o' preachin' had ye the day?"
But the answer was not that which they took a simple pleasure in drawing from him usually. Bildy began to bite his hand--a trick he had when annoyed.
"That's nae preachin'," he cried indignantly. "Yon monnie canna' preach! Wha's the reason Father Fleming canna' preach the day? Eh!" (with withering contempt.) "Sic a monnie preach!"
The diminutive, in Bildy's phraseology, implied depreciation; that was why he stigmatized a regular six-footer as a "monnie."
When Doddy came to Ardmuirland, Bildy discovered his real vocation! Doddy--or, in English, Georgie--was the orphan child of Robina's sister. His father had married a second wife and had gone out to Canada, and Widow Lamont had insisted upon having the little chap with her; for his father and step-mother were both Protestants, and Doddy stood little chance of being reared in the faith of his baptism. So the man agreed, and undertook to pay a trifle weekly for the child's keep, until he could earn something for himself.
Doddy was almost a baby--not more than four, and quite small of his age; but he soon discovered that he had a slave at his beck and call in the spellbound Bildy. The man seemed to worship the little fellow. Whenever Bildy was free from his ordinary occupations he was playing with Doddy, as though they were both children--with this difference: Doddy was always the tyrant, and Bildy the submissive subject.
It was a proof of the man's absolute harmlessness that he never so much as touched any one who angered him. Sometimes other children, attracted by Doddy, would come to join in the games, and often drove poor Bildy away. He would slink off, the picture of misery, and make his way home, biting his hand--his only sign of displeasure.
When Doddy was five, and had to attend school, Bildy would watch with the utmost patience the road by which the child had to return, until he caught sight of the tiny figure in the distance; then he would run to meet Doddy with every demonstration of joy, pick him up, set him on his shoulder, and amble off up the hill to the cottage.
Bildy had been about six years in Ardmuirland, and had become a favourite with every one. The poor fellow was so unfeignedly pleased to receive any little notice from any one that all accosted him kindly, and no one in the district would have dreamed of causing him unhappiness. Doddy had grown into a sharp little lad of seven, and was no longer so dependent upon Bildy for companionship. Yet Bildy did not relinquish altogether his post of guardian, but kept a wary eye upon the movements of his little master, ready at all times to do his bidding.
Winter set in that year unusually early. At the beginning of December earth and water were bound in the chains of a very hard frost. Nothing could more delight the heart of a schoolboy, and those of Ardmuirland were in their element. There was a small, shallow pond close by the schoolhouse, and there they were able to slide and sport about to their hearts' content. But children are changeful. When the frost had lasted more than two whole weeks, the little pond was not exciting enough. There was a mountain lake about a mile farther on, a much larger piece of water. Thither the more adventurous spirits determined to go one holiday afternoon. Doddy, who was precocious for his years, made up his mind to go too, proud in being the companion of much bigger boys. Unluckily, none of the parents of the boys had any idea of the proposed adventure; had they known, the project would have been sternly prohibited. It is possible that the young adventurers knew this and kept the matter quiet.
But Doddy's faithful guardian had watched the boy steal off, to be met by five or six others, and followed them at a distance. He did not venture to join the party openly, fearing to be driven off ignominiously, as he often had been before on other occasions. By the time he reached them they had been some half-hour at the lake, and had most of them ventured cautiously to try the bearing power of the ice. The long frost had made this quite safe in most parts; but, unluckily, the lads were not aware that there were other portions where rising springs prevented the water from freezing much, if at all. As long as they kept near to the place upon which they had first set foot all was well; but security made them venturesome. They started a game of shinty, and threw themselves into the sport with fervour.
Bildy, partly hidden behind the bushes which skirted the water, watched the game with interest, his eyes on his beloved Doddy. Suddenly, while he looked on, Doddy disappeared, and a shout of terror arose from the other boys, who were too full of fear to do much toward helping the unfortunate child, though one or two slid down prostrate and tried to crawl to the hole into which Doddy had fallen, in order to help him out with their sticks.
It remained for Bildy to come to their assistance. With a frightened cry the man rushed over the ice to the spot, and regardless of the cautions which the others shrilled at him, plunged into the water. Doddy had fallen in where there was only very thin ice around the edge of an open sheet of water. Luckily, it was shallow for a man, though it covered the child. Bildy managed to seize the boy and rose up gasping from the pool, holding Doddy aloft. He seated the frightened child on his shoulder, and was able to keep half his own body out of the water. Thus they remained till help came in the shape of one or two farm-servants, who had been summoned by the screams of the boys.
It was not a difficult matter to get the two out of the water safely; indeed, any one more sensible than poor Bildy could have lifted the child onto thicker ice, after wading some paces in the water. Both were shivering with cold and drenched with water, which froze on their clothes during their hurried progress home to bed.
The after-effects were not serious, as far as Doddy was concerned. He got a severe cold, but nothing worse--not taking into account the castigation administered with a good-will by his "auntie.” With poor Bildy it was different. He had been in the ice-cold water far longer than the boy, and a serious attack of pneumonia was the result. The poor fellow had probably little stamina. He did not rally, even when the climax seemed to have been successfully passed, but grew weaker every day.
"Robina Lamont wants me to go to that poor fellow," Val said one day. "She wants me to do what I can for him, as the doctor gives no hope of recovery. I can baptize him conditionally, of course, and I am starting now. Would you like to come, Ted?"
I was most anxious to accompany him, and we set out at once for the Lamonts' cottage.
Bildy looked frightfully wasted; his face was the colour of parchment, and his brown eyes looked enormously large and startlingly bright. But what touched me more than his emaciated appearance was the wonderful expression of emotion which shone from those large eyes as we appeared at the bedside; they looked at Val with the yearning affection that one sees sometimes in a faithful dog. The poor fellow put out his white, wasted hand to Val with evident delight.
"Bildy's been wearyin' for ye, Father," said Robina. "He's often cried out for Father Fleming."
The dying man's eyes were proof that she spoke truly.
The short ceremony was soon over, and after some prayers for the sick man we took our leave. For the few days that he lingered after that, the visit of the priest--twice every day and sometimes oftener--was the culminating point of satisfaction for poor Bildy.
I was there with Val when the end came. Bildy passed away quite peacefully while we joined in the prayers for the dying; a calm smile was on his face, and some vision of delight before his wide-open eyes, which it is not for mortals to attempt to fathom.
"Poor fellow!" exclaimed Val, as we took our way home; "life has held little of happiness for him. Indeed, one can hardly call it life in the full sense of the word; it was mere existence, as far as we can see."
"Let's hope that life has begun for him at last," I said reverently.
"I have little doubt of that," replied the priest.