‘The Black Bridge’ by W.R.M. (30 June, 1860)

The following is a dark, atmospheric tale about the creation of a bridge over the River Ugie, which flows into the north sea at Stonehaven. About the author: as far as I can tell they had one other story published in ‘The People’s Journal’, ‘The Peasant Poet’ from May of 1860.

When I was a child—my chin is still quite downy—I entertained a great love for dark things, and eagerly sought after them for the gratification of my childish mind. This, as well as the heading hereof, will lead you to suppose that the present subject is a dark one; amen! I shall respond, Hoc moda.

I do not exactly remember the very hour, or even year, in which my eyes first formed acquaintance with the subject of my rumination; but well do I remember how exceedingly intimate we became, as the silent tide of years rolled more heavily over my head, and the purling tide of Ugie flowed more familiarity beneath its gloomy parapets. Well do I remember that in morning’s rosy hours, in the sunny hours of noon, in the shady hours of twilight, and in the sombre hours of evening, mine eyes might have been seen beholding it; half-wept tears nestling in their brightness; for the sight of it brought many sad associations into mind. Dark indeed was its aspect, and the memoirs connected with it are likewise far from fair.

At a farmhouse, two or three hundred yards from where the Bridge still is, lived a man accounted by the parish wondrous clever; but what its reasons were for so judging I cannot conceive. All I know of his skill is that he was his own master, his own doctor, and probably would have been his own sexton, had permission been granted by “the powers that be.” These were the only peculiarities that marked his worldly career, and if any one of them is more worthy than the other of the epithet—clever, I know not; bearing this in mind, he died, through caprice, a terrible death; he died a self-destroyer.

He leased a small farm, capable of giving work to a couple of horses, and the said farm was conscientiously reputed to be the best kept in the laird’s whole estate; for its “dear, dear, dead and gone husband”-man took great pains and spared no attention in making it worthy of notice, both for the benefit of his own coffer, and because of the wish he had to excel everybody, in every place, in everything relating to agriculture. Withal, he kept for hire a very useful vehicle of four wheels, a vehicle—in one word, a hearse. I have never discovered why the valuable machine was not employed as a conveyance in the transferring of its owner’s remains from the top of the closet drawers—no, not that—from the court of the now dilapidated steading to the grave in—no!—to the gateway of the village churchyard, a few miles off. There is a mystery hanging about that hearse besides the cottsey-woolsey drapery; and although I have sought all that I thought eligible means of giving light to the sable mystery, I have failed in extracting one single glint of the sunshine of information. All people of whom I enquired merely shook their heads, and assumed, with due gravity, what is called a Sunday’s face; raised a hand, shook it; and if they raised their voice at all, shook it also. Oh! would I not like to hear something believable of that dismal matter? Some person knows, and yet I may die unenlightened.

I had sent you after that hearse, and where I might have led you, would bring me no credit to name. But I ought to have given yon disease before either death, hearse, or graveyard; let us then retrace our steps into the chamber of sickness. Lay aside all jokes as you would a filthy garment; tread lightly, cast off your shoes, breathe softly, and I shall draw the curtain while the victim is revealed in the clutches of the insatiate demon,—wrestling with almost superhuman effort to “lay the proud usurper low.” The invalid’s cheek, once ruddy and fresh, has become pale and attenuated, through indisposition; his eye, once bright and sparkling, has become dim and enfeebled; his lip, once the most lavish of smiles, shivered and quivering in pain; his brow, beneath which there late had been but peace; his brow, beneath which there late had been but peace, throbbing wildly in feverish agony; his heart, once light and joyous, has become—ah! you would find strongest words inadequate to express its emotions, so awful and thrilling are those within it.

He was his own master,—he would have no doctor; all his own rough experiments had only rendered his case a more hopeless one. Still, even in his latest hours, when the light of life was fitfully flickering in the socket, caprice relaxed not to hold on his nature; vain were all the touching entreaties of his most dear ones. No doctor, no help now! The lips tremble; the eyes close; the heart stops short in its struggle; the brow and breast are stilled; all becomes cold and rigid. Death’s wintry breath hath passed over him; the sighing spirit hath bidden adieu, and the brier at last receives the lifeless clay.

Near to the dwelling of the farmer was a church-path, oft frequented by the church-goers of that neighbourhood, by reason of its being of lesser length than the highway. Where the bridge now hangs stepping stones were the only means of crossing the stream dry shod; and had it not been for the death already, or rather the funeral to be mentioned, no other means might have ever yet existed. It was suggested by some who were connected by ties of relationship to the deceased that his body should be taken to the place of sepulture along the church-path; but the stepping-stones, how ere they to be got over, a coffin and four supporters abreast? The thing could not be done with much safety, thus the bridge was thought of and realised.

The procession slowly wended its way across it in almost silence! the coffin was lowered into the grave; the green sod laid above it. Oh, it is a sweet dream—a grandchild on a Sabbath noon, ere the bell toll for worship, gently culling the wild-flowers that are blossoming on the grave of her grandsire; laying her head upon the sward and shedding sweet tears of affection, which mingle as they fall with the pearly dew-drops of the summer morn; opening her cherished bible, and placing a little leaf betwixt its leaves. Oh, it is a fair, sweet dream. Would that our dreams were never less fair or less winning.

Such is the history of the Black Bridge. It is now many, many years since it was reared and tinted with the hue of mourning. It is now many years since the feet of my boyhood made it tremble and sound; yet, happy should I call the hour in which they might be privileged to tread it again, for I love it, if not for itself alone, for its associations. The laughing waves of Ugie dance in its shadow, the home of my birth is still beside it, and the ever-remembered scenes of childhood all are around it. These draw me to it with a powerful spell. Like the compass-needle to the poles, wheresoever the world’s billows may turn or toss me, still my memory shall point longingly thitherwards. I am not fain to check the passion, for, though it is dark, say has it not the power to awaken regard and remembrance? Yea, I feel it, and shall endeavour to foster that feeling, for it is of Heaven’s bestowing.

W.R.M., Aberdeen.

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