The Wounding Eyes of Margaret

Author: John Stevenson

Date: 2012

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 12 Wunter 2011/12


… (The lane) had on one side a garden wall, and a garden hedge on the other, but the space between was very generous, and the ample margins where turkeys gobbled and peacocks strutted, and where great “bings” of potatoes wintered, would not have disgraced a country road. …

[Later it all but peters out, becoming at best a footpath. The boy often traverses the lane in company with Margaret, the dairymaid, and a black cow bought from the parish church sexton, which has been given the name of The Gravedigger. During the day she is pastured alone, and in the evening turned into the home paddock after milking. On the journeys with the cow to and from her day pasture, Margaret tells the boy stories of old Norman knights, allowing him to modify the intended course of events.]

… On an afternoon when the critical stage of a heroine’s fortune promised an exciting chapter, I was disappointed to see, leaning over the lane gate, a young man called Andrew Macartney. That he was “sweet on” Margaret seemed to be well known — he had told someone that when he looked at that girl’s eyes he could go through fire and water for her — and I, old enough to understand the application of the proverb, “Two’s company — three’s none,” sought, reluctantly, distraction from a turnip-cutter. …

Time and place changed rapidly in those make-believe days, and I was preparing to chop pirates small, when I heard Margaret calling my name.

“It’s time we were away,” she said; “I have been looking for you everywhere.”

“But I thought Andrew was going with you,” I said.

“You’re going with me as usual,” replied Margaret, drawing my arm inside hers, and together we started for the gate where the lover waited.

I could see that Andrew was not pleased…

“It’s tarr’ble fine weather, but cowld for the time o’ year,” began Andrew. Margaret would have pronounced the words “terrible” and “cold.” She was called “proud,” by maids and men on the farm, because she spoke like a lady. …

Margaret proffered neither assent to, nor dissent from, the weather statement, and Andrew proceeded —

“And it’s meself that had the bad cowld this last winter. Leastways I thought it was a cowld, but it was somethin’ else. I coughed, and I coughed, and I better coughed, and at last the mistress ses, ses she, ‘Andra, ye’ll have to go to the doctor,’ says she; ‘I’m not goin’ to have you goin’ about the house coughin’ yer inside out like that.’

“So to plase her, I wint to the doctor the very next Saturday. He looked at me, and listened at my chist, and ses he —

‘“Do you feel wake at the knees whin you’re goin’ upstairs?’ ses he.

“‘And why should I feel wake at the knees whin I’m goin’ upstairs?’ ses I; and, ses I, ‘there’s no stairs in the house to go up,’ ses I, ‘barrin’ three steps into the room above the kitchen.’

“‘It’s for me to ax questions, and for you to answer,’ ses he.”

Andrew had found a subject for talking on — in his ailment. The situation was much relieved. He proceeded —

“‘All right,’ ses I, ‘I’ll answer anything you like,’ ses I; and, ses he, ‘It’s a case o’ flatness on the stomach,’ ses he, ‘and I’ll give you a bottle,’ ses he, ‘and don’t touch a pratie till you come back.’”

“Did the doctor say ‘pratie’?” queried Margaret.

“Well, no, I suppose he said ‘pertater,’” replied a crestfallen Andrew.

“I don’t think he did,” said Margaret.

“Do you think I would tell ye a lie about it?” said the astonished lover. “It’s as true as true. Pratie — pertater, is bad for the stomach when there’s anything wrong wi’ it.”

The situation again became strained, but relief came with a remark of mine about a handsome mare, grazing near, and belonging to the farm. …

The atmosphere now cleared, and Andrew, with a recollection awakened by the sight of the mare, felt encouraged to proceed.

That wee meer minds me o’ the one the master bought last year, and the day she came home. Troth, I’m not likely to forgit it soon — she near cost me my leg.”

Andrew paused for an encouraging remark, but the maid remained silent. Scenting a funny story, I asked, “What did she do, Andrew?” — and Andrew, rewarding me with a grateful look, settled himself to narration.

“I was out when she come, and the master he says, ‘Andra, I want ye to come and look at the new meer.’ So I went out to the stable, and the master went into the stall beside her, and ses he, ‘Well, isn’t she a beauty?’

“I was standin’ back, takin’ her in behind, lek, and before I could answer she let out wi’ her hind leg lek lightnin’, and jist took me here.” Here Andrew stooped and indicated a spot between knee and ankle of his right leg.

“If it had been on the shin the leg was gone for a sure thing, but fortnitly, I was standin’ a bit to one side, and the shoe jist cut me lek a knife.

“‘For any sake run intil the house,’ ses the master, ‘the blood’s runnin’ out o’ ye.’ And so it was, sure enough, and the mistress screeched when she saw me. ‘Run to the barn,’ ses she to Sarah, ‘and bring cobwebs,’ ses she, ‘and plenty o’ them, to staunch the blood.’ And in she came with her hand full o’ big, black, cobwebs, and the mistress clabbered them all over the place — sich a sight! Then the master come with a bottle o’ whisky and, ses he, ‘Put a taste o’ this on it.’ And then the mistress tied it up.

“By and by Bob Murray come in, and when he heard the story, he up to the laft and brought a bottle. ‘Here,’ ses he, ‘open it up, and put a taste o’ torpentine on it.’ It smarted, it did, but, ses he, ‘It’ll be the halin’ o’t.’”

We had reached the end of the outward journey. The Gravedigger, knowing our errand, came to meet us, and led the way homeward.

Andrew closed the gate behind us and continued his story.

“After a while in comes Hannah, the breadwoman, and of coorse she had to know all the ins and outs of it. Ses she to Sarah, ‘Make a taste o’ strong salt and water,’ ses she, and when Sarah brought it, she axed how much salt she had in it, and Sarah said a tablespoon. ‘Bring us the salt-box,’ ses she, and she took her two fistfuls, and put it intil the water. ‘Now, young man,’ ses she, ‘you’ve got to put this on it. Och! the torpentine was nothin’ to it, and I hardly closed my eyes that night.’”…

[All Andrew’s conversation elicits nothing by way of response from Margaret. The boy, however, laughs.]

“I wish’t ye’d seen that leg in the mornin’ — it was black and blue and ivery colour. And the first stranger in that mornin’ was a pedlar, and he be to know what I was sittin’ with my leg up on a chair for. Ses he, ‘I can soon make ye all right — get tuppence worth o’ hickery pickery’ (Hiera picra), ses he, ‘and two glasses o’ the best whisky,’ he ses, ‘and shake it for all you’re worth.’

“‘Shake what,’ ses I, ‘my leg?’

“‘No,’ ses he, ‘the whisky and the hickery pickery, and take a teaspoonful every other mornin’ when ye get up,’ ses he.

“‘And what good would that do my leg?’ ses I.

“‘It’s for yer blood,’ ses he; ‘it’ll keep the leg from putrifyin’, and ye’ll be well in no time.’

“Nothin’ more happened till the evenin’, and then I got a fright from an ould woman who was in lookin’ turkey eggs. When she saw the leg she ses, ‘It’s well I come,’ ses she.

“‘And what do ye think o’ it?’ ses I. ‘I think I’m in time,’ ses she. ‘Is there any linseed male in the house?’ Sarah said there was.

“‘It’s a powltice ye’ll make,’ ses she, ‘and ye’ll put it on as hot as ye can bear it and keep it on all night.’

“‘But ye don’t think it’s very bad?’ ses I.

“‘I wudn’t like to say,’ ses she. ‘There’s dead spiders in them cobwebs, and spiders is poison.’

“I declare to you, Maggie —”

The stately head rose two inches at the familiarity. If he had only said “Margaret.”

“I declare to the two o’ ye, I nivir closed an eye that night wi’ fear. And when the mistress saw me in the mornin’, ses she, ‘Andra, you’ll do yerself harm with that leg, and I’m not goin’ to have the responsibility. Jim will drive ye in to the doctor this afternoon,’ ses she.

“I’m sure it looked quare to the doctor, for he looked at me, and at it, and at it, and at me, till I thought he was nivir goin’ to spake. So I started to tell him what I had put on it.

“‘Could you tell me anything you have not put on it?’ ses he.

“Ses I, ‘There was a woman stopped us on the way, and said if I would take a taste o’ fresh butter, and — ’

“‘Fresh blethers!’ ses he. ‘If you open that out after I fix ye, or offer to put anything on it until I see you again,’ ses he, ‘I’ll have you arrested for attimpted shuicide.’”…

…We were now close to the farmyard, and the maid had not relaxed.

Andrew hastened to open the gate, and The Gravedigger passed through, acknowledging the attention by a gentle swish of her tail. As he swung the gate back Andrew made one more attempt to establish cordial relations with the fair.

“Mind ye, it was a quare leg that; I cudn’t do a hand’s turn wi’ it.”

Margaret inclined her head as we passed through, and said, “Goodbye.” This was an evident dismissal, and poor Andrew blurted out a final appeal.

“Mag — Margaret — will ye be out again? It’s tarr’ble fine for a walk, and I’ll wait.”

“I will be busy,” said Margaret, with a half-turn of the head; and as we turned the house corner there was an air of such abject dejection on Andrew’s face that my boy’s heart pitied him. …

[The boy climbs into the loft while Margaret milks the cow.]

…Margaret’s bonnie head — she had beautiful hair — was pressed close against the sleek, fat sides of the cow with the gruesome name.

With the last “stripping” I heard her say, as if thinking aloud —

“Him and his leg!”…



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