Made of whitewashed stone, Penpont House lies on a rise, a short walk from the village, behind the "Volunteer Arms". Although the name Penpont House sounds imposing, it is little more than a two-storey cottage with a slate roof. However, as the late George McCubbin was a stonemason and built it for himself, he was able to roof it with tile slates that put it a cut above the normal thatch. As befitting his station in life, he had owned a small patch of land where the family now grew crops. In this respect, the McCubbin family were considered relatively well off.
A sitting room and a bedroom share the ground floor with the kitchen, while the attic space provides bedrooms for the younger members of the family. Agnes, as mother, has the use of the lower bedroom, while James's small room is at the top of the stairs. Isabella and Jenny share a room at one end of the roof space. From their small window they can see over the village. Billy, who is recovering after a spell of coalminers' sickness, shares a room with George at the other end of the attic. James's room also has a view of the nearby village through the side window.
A cool breeze, precursor to the forthcoming cold blasts of winter, followed Jessie in through the wooden front door. She looked around the living room, saw the shawl over the rocking chair by the fire, and knew that Agnes couldn't be far off. Sure enough her Mother-in-law came down the stairs at that moment, stopped upon seeing her, drooped her shoulders and hobbled over to the chair, saying, "I was just upstairs for a ball of wool for my knitting. There's niver a soul around to fetch the things I need."
"Well, I thought I'd just pop in and see how ye were doing," ventured Jessie. "I see the fire's well alight. That should feel good. And how's yer William?"
"Billy's resting in his bed, poor bogger, with his cough as bad as ever. Isabella has gone down to help clean out the wreckage, and young Jenny as usual is not to be found when she's needed. A lazy little scutter, that she is."
"Oh, to be sure, she can't be that bad," Jessie protested. "Here, I've brought ye a draught for yer dizzy spells. Andrew thought it may be a benefit. The medicine man in Dumfries said as how it would help with the screeching in yer ears as well. It smells something awful, like old tobacco, but he has no doubt it will do the trick."
"Och, thank ye for yer kindness, and there's nay too many around here that I can say that about. Sit ye doon and tell me all about yer wee trip to town."
So saying, Agnes eased her body into the rocker and folded her hands around the purple bottle Jessie handed her.
"Well, Andie said we would call in on my Mother and Father at Lochmaben if we had the time, but it took so long to find the things on his list that we had to leave that for another day. What with the restrictions and things, there's a lot of shortages at the moment and ye have to pay a high price for things, if ye can find them at all. But I got a couple of books, and a bag of wee sweeties, so the bairns of the village will be satisfied, even if their folks aren't."
"Och, ye'll be spoilin' the wee tykes, that ye will. I mind when I was growin' up there was no sweeties around. I was lucky to get a dookit piece when Mam was makin' the soup. She would cut such a slice off the bread to dip in the soup, and it would lie there steamin' on the plate, too hot to eat. Me fingers would get all burned with tryin' to pick it up. Och, them was the days. I used to make them for me own wee ones, when old George was alive. James used to love the ones wi' turnip soup the best, but wee George thought the tattie was the nicer taste. But now that Isabella's taken over me cookin', there's no need for me to be makin' tasties and dookit pieces, so young Jenny'll just miss out, and serves her right."
"But she's only a wee lass. What's wrong with her?"
"Och, she's always at me...'wanna do this, wanna do that.' She fair tuckers me out just to listen to her. Never around to scrub the floors or carry out the washin', like I used to do as a lass. And to hear her gab...ye'd think she was Lady Muck hersel'. I've told young Andie he's no right fillin' her head with such rubbish. Learnin' her how to read, indeed. And even writin'! I've never needed it, and look at me."
Jessie did look at her, and saw the life she had led. Anchored to the house, babies at foot, washing, scrubbing and cooking over the open fire for her stonemason husband. By 55 she was a burned out shell, her only joy recalling their early days when she and her young husband George would don their Sunday clothes and travel by horse and cart to Kirk Meeting in the village. Then if the weather was fine, maybe a trip out to the old Preaching Stone on Barjarg Moor for a picnic.
That was before the eleven children occupied every corner of her existence. Or rather, twelve children, as Agnes's second child had been named Isabella in 1819, but died of the flu at the age of only fourteen. As is the habit in Scotland, the first girl child born after Isabella's death was named Isabella in her place. Now, at 16 years of age, the second Isabella was flowering, the object of every young beau in the Nithsdale district.
Agnes's voice interrupted her.
"Now ye haven't been lettin' our Andie pester ye, have ye?"
"No, Mother Agnes, Jessie replied, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. "I've been tying the hem of my nightgown to my ankles as ye said to do, but he gets awful niggley, all the same."
"Aye, and well he might. And I'm just wishin' my mither had told me what to do about it and I wouldna have had such a hard time of it. And ye ken what the Reverend says."
"Aye, I know." And she thought of the skinny preacher in his worn and shiny black suit, waving his arms from the pulpit, crying out against the sins of the flesh.
But in the deep recesses of her mind, she questioned his tirades. He was unmarried, shunning the company of even the most respectable of his female parishioners. What would he know of the needs that she felt stirring in her young body?
Dragging her thoughts back to the present, Jessie divulged the real reason for her visit.
"I was thinking this morning that Andie's birthday is coming up next week. He'll be twenty-two."
"Aye, that he will. I remember well when he was just a wee tacker, he...or was that Billy? Well, anyroad, I never forgave the little rapscallion for it."
"Well, Mother-in-law, no matter. I thought it might be nice to have a special dinner for him. A sort of surprise. Nothing fancy, just a good hot meal with all the family around. And I've got him a wee gift that can be from all of us. I bought it in Dumfries when he was not looking. It's only a small thing from a pawnshop, but I think he might like it."
"Och, and what is it, lassie?"
"It's a watch. Silver, I believe, with a pattern on it. It is a bit old and I don't know if it tells the right time as it doesn't have a key to wind it up, but still it looks fine."
"Well, we may be able to cobble together a bit of a feast. Nothing like when my old George was alive. Now those were the days. We'd stuff ourselves wi' good beef or game, some bird, plenty of greens an' tatties, and a big fish brought out of the river. We'd wash it all down wi' a draft of ale while himself would sip his whisky."
"That sounds fine, but we havena' got much in the way of such goodies. We'll just have to make do. A good pot of thick soup would start us off, with maybe some jugged hare, and we might ask young George to kill us a chicken that has stopped layin'. Robert may find a fish in the Nith if he's lucky, and we've still got some greens in the garden to cook up. We'll get by. But it must be a surprise, mind. I want to see his face when he sees the spread we put out for him."
"And how are we goin' to get the pair of ye up here on the night, do ye' ken?"
"I could tell him that yer Billy has been asking for him. That would get him up here after he closes the shop."
"Aye, they've always looked out for each other, and Billy's still awful sick wi' that damned black spit that he got in the mines. I curse the day he started there, but wi' things the way they was, 'tis all he could do to get a job. He did say once that the shop should have been his by rights, but it's young Andie has the head for figures. With his thirst, Billy would have drunk the profits and gone broke in a year. 'Tis much better that Andie took it on, so it is."
"Oh, Andie was telling me that Mr. McGurr was talking of putting the rent up again. Says he can't make a decent living on the pittance that Andie pays him. I think he's greedy, for our wee shop is only one of many properties he owns. And the mine as well! And there he sits in his manor house, his leather boots pointing to the log burning in the fireplace, with his glass of port in hand and his pipe in the other. Maids at his beck and call, and a coach-and-four waitin' for him outside whenever. And here we are, struggling to make ends meet. It's a crying..."
The door of the cottage burst open. A spindly young girl flew into the room, her face red from running uphill, hair spinning around her face as her wide eyes blinked in the dim light before settling on Agnes, sitting in front of the peat fire.
"Mam" she gasped, "they've found a dead body wi' no skin on it at all. 'Tis under the McMath's cottage..."
"Jenny, stop right there. I'll have none of yer storytelling and lies. And Jessie will hear none of them either. Now calm down, and go and see to yer brother Billy, where ye should have been all the time."
"But Mother, it's true. His bones are all yeller and comin' apart."
"Och, away wi' ye, or ye'll be gettin' a beltin' and no mistake."
At that moment the open doorway was filled with Isabella's ample girth. She stood there, blowing hard for a moment, then panted, "It's a visitation from the dead, right enough... The men are digging the corpse out now...And not a shred of flesh on its bones...but wrapped in the plaid...and with a broadsword and dirk to protect it from the evil ones."
So saying, she collapsed onto another stool, which was lost in the folds of her black skirt. Agnes and Jessie stared at her, open mouthed, while Jenny danced around singing, "Told you so, I told you so."
The villagers clustered around the body, buzzards circling, their eyes riveted on their prey. The corpse had been exhumed, and its bones lay in roughly the correct positions on the faded and rotted length of Buchanan tartan. The basket-hilt sword and a small dirk lay, rusted and tarnished, on one side of the skeleton. George and Andie knelt at the trench, which had been cut to release the body, and scrabbled around in the pit to see if there was anything else to bring out. A small leather sporran lay beside them, its thong belt rotted away and green mould painting its surface.
"That seems to be all of it," announced Andie.
"Aye, the poor bogger didn't have much to find. I wonder who he was?"
"Well there may be a clue in his sporran. Let's have a look."
The eyes of the villagers swiveled from the bleached remains to the small leather pouch in Andie's hand. His fingers fumbled with the thong holding the bag shut. The knot was stiff and unyielding, then the rotted thong parted and the mouth to the purse opened.
Andie tipped the contents out onto a corner of the plaid. George stared down at a moldy piece of parchment, a silver ring with a small cut glass stone, three brown coins and an amulet. His face froze. The amulet, green with verdigris, was identical to the one he always wore around his neck, the one he had so recently tucked into his pocket for safety.
"Och, it's the same as my lucky charm that my father gave me before he died. Look."
He took it out and held the two together. Identical twins, the one shiny silver and on a chain, the other stained from many years in the leather pouch, they lay side by side as the villagers looked at each other in wonderment.
"Aye, 'tis the Royal seal, right enough," exclaimed wizened Bruce Graham, the oldest man in the village, "I mind well my father's father telling me of it when I was a lad. The McCubbin of that time had been given one for an act of bravery done to the King. Then, when he had twin boys delivered unto him, and not being able to split the charm, he had my grandfather's great-grandfather make him an identical one, and gave them to the twins to carry and protect them."
"That means this poor soul is related to me then," exclaimed George. "For the two charms are the same, and ye said there were only the two of them made."
"As far as I know, that is so, as they were Royal seals. But as to who this poor man may be, I'm not knowin'. The twins were both killed in the battle at Culloden as far as I recollect."
"Then how is it I have this one?" asked George in bewilderment. "My father gave it to me on his deathbed, along with the right to work the family land. I think he gave it me out of pity, for he felt a terrible guilt about my legs being broke. 'Twas him that sent me up Glengar Hill that day, and he never forgot that."
"Well, that's a mystery and no mistake," mused Andrew.
The corpse had been cleaned, and wrapped in the faded plaid, before being placed in the rough coffin that Robert had managed to build hurriedly, as the superstitious villagers felt vulnerable until the corpse was safely underground again.
The simple belongings had been wrapped up and handed to James for care. Reverend McLeish had blessed the remains and said a benediction for the soul of the deceased.
James, Andrew, George and Robert, as possible relatives of the mystery man, had lowered his remains into a freshly dug grave in the church-grounds. A moment of silence from the villagers clustered around the excavation, then the earth covered the puzzle once more.
"There can be no headstone, for we know not who he is," declared Reverend McLeish, his long hooked nose and black coat flapping in the breeze making him into the parody of a callous black raven. "But for all that, and in the belief that he was in all likelihood a McCubbin, I am allowing him to rest here in this consecrated ground. May his tormented soul now find the peace of God Almighty. Amen."
And with that he fluttered away, back into the sanctity of the stone church.
"Jenny, where are ye, ye little scutter?" Agnes's voice could be heard right through the house as she bellowed her query. In the upstairs bed, Billy McCubbin stirred, sat up, barked a series of harrowing coughs, and hawked black into the bowl beside the bed. Jenny waited for him to finish and whispered, "Don't let on I'm here. She's been after me with the switch all day. It's only that I'm faster that me back's not black and blue. She's a terror, is Mum. And me with this awful guts-ache."
"Ye'd better be going down and see what she wants," croaked Billy. "Otherwise she'll be up here and then there'll be hell to pay. Tell her ye was readin' to me."
"Oh, I canna say that. You know she canna see the sense in lassies readin'. Anyway, she's cookin' things for Andie's party and I don't know nothin' about cookin'."
"Then here's yer chance to learn. Go on, git down there and give her a hand. Take my bowl with ye, but mind ye bring me a clean one first thing. I'm going to try to sleep now, so I'll not be needing ye."
Downstairs Agnes was all of a dither as she stirred the pot of soup on the fire, taking time out to press oaten-dough into shape for bannocks, and chopping some kale leaves as well. She looked up as Jenny's feet timidly came down the stairs.
"And it's about time too. Here, stir the soup, and don't let it stick to the bottom, or the burnt bit is all ye'll be gettin' for sup tonight."
"Oh, mam, me guts is achin' something cruel. Can I go outside and have a walk? It may settle me before the party."
"No, of course not ye lazy tyke. There's work to be done here and I've only got two hands. And it's not a party, just a dinner is all."
"Oh all right," Jenny said, and "ye silly old witch," under her breath as she took the ladle in her hand and stirred the thick yellow soup bubbling over the open fire.
The smell of barley wafted through the kitchen and up the stairs to mingle with the stale sweat and mould smells that had lain claim to the bedrooms above. The sun slowly moved around the corner of the house, its rays finally squeezed out from the window of Billy's room, and the air seemed suddenly colder. A few early snowflakes fluttered down to rest and dissolve on the window ledge. Billy stirred in his sleep and a tight cough forced its way from his rattling chest. The noise from downstairs covered his labored breathing.
"What do you mean, another half-crown a week! How do you expect me to be paying that much rent?" Andie's voice was strained as he faced Mr. McGurr, resplendent in fur collared coat and top hat.
"Ye heard me, Andrew McCubbin. Yer rent will be two shillings and saxpence more each week from now on. I canna be a charity, lettin' my places out for little or no money. I have a position to maintain ye ken, and if I am to be the leading citizen of this parish, 'tis a wee bit extra I'll be needing. I have let ye use the shop for next to nothing since yer father passed on, God rest his soul, but it's now time ye paid yer way."
"But Mr. McGurr, the shop's just making ends meet now. I canna see us paying out any more with money so tight."
"Aye, well, it's either pay up the rent I'm legally entitled to ask, or it's yerself I'll be puttin' out on the roadside. Take it or leave it. Good day to ye, sir."
And with that retort, his plump form rolled out the door and over to his carriage waiting at the kerb.
Andrew steadied himself at the corner of the counter, his brows furrowed as he tried to take in the import of McGurr's message. Half a crown a week! He thought of the little red-covered book under the counter, and opened it. Tabled here were all the monies owed to the shop for goods supplied to his customers. His brow furrowed as his eyes swept down the entries. Almost every member of the village had a page in his notebook, some with entries going back many months. They paid a little off from time to time as best they could, and if they couldn't, well, they were almost family...they would pay when the crops came in. But knowing that didn't help him. McGurr would expect the rent each week, and would send his rent collector for it. No matter that the extra imposition would see Andrew and Jessie facing hard times, it must be paid. With face blank and shoulders slumped, he picked up some packets and went into the back room.
The front door flew open, the bell jangling on its spring, and Jessie breezed in, swirling her cloak off her shoulders as she did so.
"Andie, dear, I'm back. I'll just go upstairs to rest for a bit. Ye'll remember we're going up to the house to see Billy this evening." Not waiting for an answer, she picked up the hem of her skirt and ascended the stairs.
In the smoky glow from the sputtering oil lamps, the women bustled around the table, while mother Agnes directed from her rocking chair. Isabella set down the plates of different sizes and shapes, and Jenny placed a knife and fork above each plate.
"Och, there isna enough forks to go round. Och well, the men'll have ta use their fingers, I suppose."
"And what's new about that? God gave them five fingers on each hand long before forks was even thought of," Isabella replied with a grin. "If the truth be known, they'd most likely prefer it. Makes 'em think they're tough."
From her chair in the corner, Agnes mumbled "I ken when George was alive we had a big tuck-in and..."
"Jenny, could ye give the soup another stir, I don't want it stuck to the bottom of the tureen. And then check the wee trout in the pan. It should be right for turnin'. And the loaf needs cuttin'. I'll get the butter pat from the shelf, for Andie and Jessie will be here afore long."
Footsteps on the stair and James came into the room, closely followed by George, favoring his left leg. They were dressed in their Sunday clothes, faces scrubbed pink and wisps of damp hair sticking out in all directions.
"Ye look a sight with yer hair all amuss. Go get it down," Isabella said fondly to her eldest brother.
"Och, it'll do," replied James as he pressed it into place with both hands. George took the hint and did likewise.
"And where's young Robbie, I wonder?" Isabella asked as she set down the salt dish. "I've not seen hide nor hair of him all day."
"He's away lookin' for work since he lost his job," Agnes answered. "I told him to try up Monaive way. But he kens about tonight. He'll be here if he can at all."
Just then the lamp flickered as a gust of wind found its way down the chimney.
"Looks like a wild night ahead" muttered George, as he took his place at the table.
"Come on, dearest," Jessie murmured. Andrew turned the key in the lock and slipped it into his pocket. She clung onto his arm as they turned and headed up the road towards the family home.
"You've been awful quiet all afternoon. Is anything amiss in the shop?"
"Aye lass. You've hit it right on the head. I wasna going to tell you yet, as I didna know how. You see, I had a visit from McGurr today. He's putting up our rent all right. The greedy sod wants another half-crown a week from us. I told him we couldn't do it, but he said we must, or we'll find ourselves out on the street."
"But that's terrible, Andie. How can the man think of being so mean? Hasn't he a shred of decency in him? What are we to do?"
"I don't know, my love. We spent more than we should have on supplies in Dumfries, and there is only a few shillings left in the till. The way things are in the village, there's not much chance of that changing either. We can't afford another half crown, for sure. I think I'll have to see McGurr tomorrow and try to make him see reason."
Lightning forked in the sky, momentarily lighting the path winding up to the front of Penpont House, and after about four seconds, thunder burst on them and rumbled through the nearby hills.
"That one was only a mile away," said Andie as he squeezed her hand. "We could be in for some rain, or even the first snows."
Jessie clung tight to him as they passed through the gateway in the stone fence and headed for the front door. Was it the approaching lightning storm, or the threat of eviction, which caused her to shiver?
Billy, carried downstairs by his two brothers, was now covered by a rug and half sitting, half lying on some boxes near the fireplace. His gray complexion and sunken eyes spoke of his illness as he tried to suppress the coughing spasms that are the mark of the 'Black Spit' or coalminer's lung disease. He cradled a bowl of hot soup in his hands as he waited for it to cool.
Agnes sat at the head of the table, with James on her right and George on her left. Next to James was Isabella's empty chair, and two other stools flanked the table. At the foot of the table sat Jenny, toying with a piece of bread. The soup tureen took center stage on the table, steam curling up into the darkness of the ceiling.
"... such a thing, I wonder. He must have been a McCubbin, I believe. The Buchanan plaid is what we are proud to wear, although denied to us for many a year after Culloden. But it's the amulet that's got me puzzled. Was it his, did he find it, or steal it do ye think, George?"
"I dinna ken, James. It's got me right aback. But it's the ring as well. Such a delicate carvin' I've not seen the likes of before. And the wee words inside it. 'Sandy and Moira... soar in the clouds.' What do they mean d'ye ken?"
Just then the latch clacked up as the door opened and Andrew drew Jessie in after him. "We've just popped in to see how young Billy is," announced Andie. He squinted in the lamplight and saw his brother propped up on the other side of the fire.
"Well, this is an improvement, indeed. Up and about, I see."
"No, we carried him down for this special occasion," replied James.
"Yes, happy birthday Andie," grinned Isabella, "It's not much, but this dinner's for you, seeing ye've reached the age of two and twenty. Come, sit ye down near young Jenny and we can all have a wee drop o' soup."
The congratulations were echoed around the table as the young couple, he looking surprised, she pleased that her ruse had worked, sat down in the pride of place. She looked over the table at her husband and smiled.
"Did ye not guess at all that we might have been brewing this up for ye?" she asked.
"No, I confess my birthday was not on my mind much at all today. Except for this morning when you made me that lovely breakfast to start my day and gave me that lovely watch. Och my bonnie one...you have a serving of slyness and deceit in you right enough," he replied with a grin.
"Only to yer benefit, my dear sir," she came back, with a finger under her chin and a wide-eyed look of innocence.
The simple meal progressed, the soup being followed by a roast of pork and a small chicken, surrounded by garden vegetables. The talk around the table centered on the skeleton and its possible relationship with their ancestry.
Thunder rumbled outside, the occasional flash slicing through the drawn curtains to light up the family in stark relief as they sat enjoying their simple feast.
"Och it's almost like old times" Agnes interjected during a lull in the conversation. "If only John was back with us. We haven't heard from him in Australia for such a long time. And young Robert should be here to wish ye all the best. Anne and Jean and their husbands, would have liked to be here I'll be bound, but we didna have time to get a message to them. No one was heading up to Sanquhar or Locharbriggs ye see. But no doubt they'll be all over ye at the next Games."
"That's all right, mother. I'm quite happy with this amount of surprise. I don't know that I could have handled any more shocks today."
"Why, what do you mean, Andie" queried James.
"Och, old man McGurr is putting up the shop rent by half a crown a week, starting today, and I dinna think we can pay it."
"That's outrageous, mon. Who does he think he is...Lord Muck himself?" James growled. "I've a mind to go up there and flatten his face."
Agnes spun around, fixed her son with a stern look and exclaimed, "Don't you dare, James. The very idea! I'll not have ye being locked up or worse, for assaulting a man who's not fit to lick yer boots. Now ye get such a notion out of yer head this instant!"
James subsided into muttering, but the feeling around the table was thick with resentment against the landlord, who had lately been evicting local tenants who had fallen behind with their payments.
"He's bound to get his comeuppances in the end," remarked Agnes. "It's a good thing he can do nothing about us. We own our own house here, and that's a fact."
So saying, she stuffed another piece of kale in her mouth and chewed noisily on it.
"Aye, but that doesna help poor Andie and Jess, mither," said George quietly. "There must be a lot in the village who have goods on tick, I would think, Andie?"
"Yes, there are quite a few on the books. But they will pay when they get the 'tater crop in."
"Well, ye might have to ask 'em for a wee bit now, just to tide ye over. Otherwise ye might not be there when it comes time to pay ye."
"Yes, I've been thinking the same. And I will be doing just that after I see McGurr tomorrow, if I can't talk any sense into his thick head."
"Well, I'll lay yer best clothes out in the morning, if ye've a mind to go and pay him a visit," suggested Jessie.
"No, my love. I'll go up in my day clothes. He may think I'm richer than I am if I dress up. If anything, I'll dress down to convince him we can't afford the new rental. Now, who's hiding the salt dish? These greens could do with a bit of extra taste."
"What a nice surprise that was. And to think you were able to keep it a secret from me, my dear." The candle stub lit Andie's face as he took his jacket off and hung it on the door latch. "I couldn't have wished for a nicer birthday gift."
"Well, with things the way they are, and money so tight, I thought this was the best way of showing ye what we all think of ye," Jessie answered, turning her back to him so he could help to undo the back of her dress.
"Aye, much appreciated, lass. And the little pot o' jam from young Jenny. Made from crushed raspberries from down the lane, she said they were. I wonder if she cooked 'em first? I suppose I'll find out tomorrow morning when I spread it on my bannock."
Jessie's answer was rather muffled as she pulled off her layered garments. Andie sat on the side of the bed to pull off his socks and was rather taken aback to find himself plunged into darkness as she blew out the candle.
"Hey, I haven't finished undressing yet, lass. What's your hurry?"
"Mother Agnes says it's not seemly for ye to see me undressed."
"I know what she says, but that hasn't worried you in the past. You have always kept your back to me and retained your decency while putting on your nightgown. What is so different about tonight?"
"Mother Agnes is so strict about things. She made me promise that I would tie the hem of my nightgown to my ankles as soon as I put it on, and I am not about to break my promise tonight."
"Alright, lass. I understand, and I am prepared to wait until you feel it is seemly before we have a family, but why keep me in the dark tonight?"
"Because, my lovely man, it's yer birthday, and I am not thinking of putting my gown on for a while. Now, come into bed and keep me warm."
Go on to Chapter Three