‘Bodkin Among the Soldiers’ (11 November, 1865)

The following letter is part of a long series by Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the ‘People’s Journal’ in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland.

Maister Editor,—I’m in Perth, ye’ll recolleck, an’ I’ve just seen Tibbie mountit on a gig, an’ awa’ post-haste to Dundee. Less micht hae saired her, I thocht, but what will women no drive a body till when they tak’ a notion into their obstinate heads? Mary-Ann was needin’ nane o’r, an’ the bairs were doin’ brawlie. Twa three oors sooner or later was neither here nor there, but curiosity is an awfu’ thing! For its gratification some folk wad do the daftest exploits imaginable, an’ never think o’ the expense. Ou na, siller is naething to them if sae be they get their rax carried oot. I was a saft snotter to gie in till her, but I’m like owre mony mair in the married status o’ life—I’m aye wise ahent the hand!

Hoosomdever, she’s awa’ to Dundee, an’ here am I in Perth, left entirely on my ain resoorces, wi’ naebody to advise wi’ or to listen to my griefs. I’ve business on my hand—important business, that behooves to be done—if done ava—wi’ energy, promptitude, an’ intelligence. There is a monster in human shape to be tracked oot an’ laid hands on—a clever vagabond too, an’ as souple as he is clever, I dinna doot. What am I to do? Hoo am I to proceed? where will I mak’ inquiries as to his whereabouts? an’ wha will assist me? I wandered backwards an’ forewards, through this street an’ that street, an’ ower the Brig an’ roond the North Inch, an’ I turned ower the Brig an’ roond the North Inch, an’ I turned ower the aboove questions in my mind, an’ viewed them in every possible licht, but withoot comin’ to ony practical conclusion. I was an utter alien in the place. Wi’ the exeption o’ Murphy, the petawtie merchant, I knew not a livin’ sowl in that strange city, and the Murphies are nane o’ my favourites, for although they are relations—(very far removed, hooever,)—I dinna coont them amang my best freends. I want to hae nae mair communication wi’ them than what canna be weel-fauredly avoided, an’ as they regaird me wi’ a kindred feeling there is really an’ truly nae love tint atween the twa branches o’ the family.

To add to my dreariness an’ weariness, the shades o’ e’enin’ were beginnin’ to creep ower the taps o’ the distant hills. The sun had “gane doon ower the lofty Ben-lomond,” an’ the red cluds had ceased “to preside ower the scene.” The street lamps were beginnin’ to blink up here an’ there, an’ the shop laddies were beginnin’ to put on their shutters. I was wanderin’ aboot like a ne’er-do-weel on the North Inch recallin’ the incidents o’ the combat atweesh the Clan Chattan an’ the Clan Quhele, as recordit in the “Fair Maid o’ Perth,” an’ I had juist fixed on the exact spot where Eachin the last o’ the Quheles behooved to hae crossed the Tay in his flicht, when I forgaithers wi’ twa sodger-lookin’ chields, wi’ nochty bits o’ bannets stuck “on three hairs,” as the sayin’ is, wi’ garments o’ very secondary material an’ very nippit-like, an’ ilk ane o’ them carryin’ a bit cane stickie in his hand, juist as if they had been gentlemen born. Set them up, indeed! It’ll be lang ere thirteen an’ a bawbee a day mak’ a man a gentleman, in the sense that they evidently attached to the word. I’m no in favours o’ the nine-tailed cat either in the army, the navy, or the ceevil service—far from it; but if ever ony man was worthy o’ a hidin’ on the bare back in this warld, thae twa ill-deedie vaigs richly deserved a roond or twa o’ the whups, an’ that too on their very seat of honour—though there is dooms little o’ that commodity in their haill bouk, whether ye look fo’t in their head, or their heart, or elsewhere.

“Beg pardon, gentlemen,” quoth I, addressin’ them in the ceevilest langwidge I could pick oot o’ my vocabulary. “I’m a stranger an’ a pilgrim in this strange city, an’ maybe ye wadna refuse to gie me a word o’ coonsel, for I’m on the horns o’ a dilemny, an’ I wad like to get aff by some means or ither.”

“The horns o’ a what?” quoth ane o’ the chields (no a spark o’ poetry in his sowl evidently). “I see no horns about you. Can you, Bob?”

“D—d a horn see I!” was Bob’s profane rejoinder. “But I say, old fellow, will you kindly tell me this?”

“Tell ye what?” quoth I.

“Does your mother know you’re out?” quoth he.

“Gae awa’, min,” quoth I. “an’ dinna speak in that disrespectfu’ manner to a man wha is not only aulder than yersel’, but also yer superior offisher.”

Whereupon the twa rogues begoud to mak’ the grand military salute to me, juist as if I had been Queen Victoria, or the Prince o’ Wales, or some ither famous personage born to sway the rod of empire, whereas I gave them to understand that I was naething greater than a puir teelyour in pursuit o’ a Venturolocust wha had grossly abused an’ insultit my pairtner in life. On hearin’ this explanation they humbly beggit my pardon for the mistak’ they had fae’en into, an’ I really thocht that they were beginnin’ to entertain a proper sense o’ their duty, but I was never sairer imposed on in a’ the days o’ my life, for they were as deep as the bottomless pit itsel’, an’ as double-faced an’ black-heartit as the Tenant thereof.

Quoth Bob to his comrade, “I say, Bill, don’t you think this gentleman should apply at the Barracks?”

“The very thing, Bob,” said Bill eagerly, “blowed if I’d thought o’ that now.”

“Apply at the Barracks,” quoth I, “what wad ye hae me applyin’ there for? Ye dinna mean to tell me that the Venturolocust is ane o’ yer offishers, or lodged i’ the Barracks?”

“No, not exactly that,” quoth Bob.

“Then tell me wi’ as muckle exactitude as ye can,” quoth I, “for I’m in a condition to embrace ony proposal ye like to mak’, providit it promises to assist me in bringin’ that scamp to justice.”

“What I mean, Mr Teelyour, is this,” quoth Bob. “You go along to the Barracks and ask for Captain Soan’ So—[I forget his name noe]—and you tell him that a certain party has been kissing your wife in the Tunnel, and that you desire the regiment to be called to assist you in catching the offender. You’ll find the captain a very nice fellow, and he’ll turn out the regiment in a moment. Why, only a month ago his own lady was kissed in that very same Tunnel in the very way and probably by the very same party, and the captain has been looking for the fellow ever since then. Would give anything to lay his hands on him. A real fact!”

“But is it common in this place,” quoth I, “to ca’ oot the military to catch blackguards o’ the venturoloquial stamp?”

“Nothing more common,” quoth Bob, wi’ an aith that I did not like to hear. “Them blue-coated fellows, the police, are of no use in the world—not worth their meat, in fact, in a case of this kind. No, no, take my advice, and go at once to the Barracks, and we’ll have that venturesome individual in quod in no time.”

“That’s what he should do,” said Bill, wha had listened to Bob’s eloquence wi’ great attention withoot makin’ ony observations o’ his ain, “Blowed if I’d a thought o’ that, Bob, you’re a clever jigger—you are!”

“Maybe ye’ll be on yer way to the Barracks yersels? quoth I, inquirin’ly. “If sae, I can juist gang alang wi’ ye, for, bein’ a stranger, I dinna ken the road.”

“No—on duty—can’t show face at the Barracks for two hours—good,” quoth Bob, pokin’ his comrade in the short ribs wi’ the end o’ his cane as a signal to haud his tongue, for Bob—had emitted a sort o’ a grunt, that might hae been interpreted to signifee a desire on his pairt to comply wi’ my reasonable request.

“On duty,” echoed Bill, takin’ his cue frae Bob. “Blowed if I thocht o’ that now.”

“But I’ll tell you what,” quoth Bob, lookin’ up sharply as if a happy idea had suddenly entered into his mischief-makin’ brain. “You’ll come along with us, and we’ll get some little boy up the way here who will take you to the Barracks for a penny.”

“Blowed if I’d a thought o’ that,” was Bill’s observation, an’ it seemed to be the only observation the blockhead was cappable o’ makin’, yet I sudna be owre hard on him aithern, for if Bob had possessed only a half o’ Bill’s impenetrability an’ wanted a half o’ his ain smeddum an’ brazen-faced impudence, I wad hae been spared the needcessity o’ makin a vain travel to the Barracks, an’ gettin’ mysel’ laughen at by a haill regiment o’ sodgers.

“Weel, gentlemen,” quoth I, “the proposal seems feasible eneugh, an’ in for a penny in for a pound.”

“O, I’ll pay the penny,” quoth Bob. “Don’t think of it. I—I—I know what is due to a stranger, Mr Teelyour, for I was a stranger myself the first time I entered Perth.”

“Blowed if I’d thought o’ that,” quoth Bill, wi’ an insane snicker.

“Na, na,” quoth I; “yer pennies are no sae rife, I’se warrant. Thirteen an’ a bawbee is a sma’ wage for a workin’ man. Ye’ll no wax fat on that an’ hae muckle to spare for charity. I’ll pay the laddie oot o’ my ain pouch.”

“As you like,” quoth Bob. “I’m your man if you want it, you know.”

So I proceedit along wi’ Bob an’ Bill towards the city; but as it was gray gloamin’ by this time, the bairns were a’ within doors, and hence we sought in vain for some time for the article we wanted—namely, an intelligent laddie that wad pilot my way to the Barracks for a penny. Hoosomdever, in the coorse o’ oor journey we alichted on a public-hoose, for they are rife eneugh in Perth, as they are elsewhere, an’ the sicht thereof seemed to hae a pecooliar fascination for Bob, for he stoppit fornenst the door, an’ observed in an undertone to Bill, “I say, Bill, I’m d—sh dry! Eh? what d’ye say to a nip?”

“Blowed if I’d a thought o’ that now,” said Bill.

“Mr Teelyour,” quoth Bob, direckin’ his discoorse to me, “you wont object to take the share of a gill, will you? A cold night you know, and I’m confoundedly thirsty. I had a red herring to dinner to-day, and hard fish to tea, and between the two of them, I can tell you, they have played the deuce with my potato basket.”

“That’ll be yer stammack, ye mean?” quoth I.

“Yes—my stammack,” quoth Bob. “Beg pardon, Mr Teelyour.”

“But my name’s no Teelyour, gentle sir,” quoth I. “By profession I’m a teelyour, but by name I am Tammas Bodkin.”

“O cricky!” quoth Bob. “Mr Bodkin! my beloved friend Mr Bodkin, who has not heard of him! Who would have thought to meet you here? Well, I never, did you ever? Why, my dear sir, I’ve been longing many a day to see you, just to shake hands with you, you know. Do let me have a wag of your paw! I’m so delighted! We all read you along at the Barracks every week, and the Captain considers you an immense card. We must have a glass together, Mr Bodkin, before we part, and we’ll just step in here—won’t take a minute.”

So the souple-tongued rascal—I’ll ca’ him nae less, albeit he wears Her Majesty’s breeks—grips me by the arm, an’ hauls me awa’ into the public-hoose afore I had time to ken what I was doin’. A gill being ordered, we discussed that, an’ as Bob declared that the licker had a’ been absorbed afore it reached the root o’ his tongue (nae wonder, for it wad require nae little liquidation to moistify his vocable machinery), there was anither gill ordered, an’ it also was disposed o’ wi’ little apparent effort. Lastly, we had in twa or three roonds o’ half-an’-half, an’ cigars for the piece o’s. I did smoke ane o’ the cigars, I will not deny that; but, as I was determined to preserve a’ my faculties intact for whatever wark they micht be required to perform at the Barracks, I eschewed the licker as far as I could, an’ I’m very sure if a’ that crossed my craig had been measured it wadna hae exceedit half-a-dizzen o’ thimblefu’s. Hoosomdever, there was nae want o’ merchants for the licker, for Bob an’ Bill had a wa’gang that it seemed utterly impossible to satisfy, insomuch that the drink disappeared off the table wi’ a celerity truly amazin’.

Bob an’ Bill, but Bob especially, were really very good billies—crackit like pen-guns—tauld me a’ aboot their “wenches,” as they ca’d their sweethearts—direckit me hoo I was to behave when I gaed to the Barracks—an’ gied me a deal o’ miscellaneous information, though, if the truth maun be tauld, the major pairt thereof was maybe mair enterteenin’ than usefu’.

We sat maybe forty minutes a’thegither, an’ at last I drew oot my huggar an’ clappit doon half-a-croon, as I happened to be destitute o’ sma’ cheenge, expeckin’ that oor house was to be viewed in the licht o’ an eeksie-peeksie affair, but what was my astonishment to find, when the servant lassie made her appearance, that neither Bob nor Bill made the slichtest allusion to the fact that, as they had drunk the majority o’ the licker, they behooved to contribute towards the payment o’ the lawin’. They had gien me their advice, an’ I suppose they thocht it but little eneugh although I gied them the wherewithal to slocken their drouth. The only reference Bob made to the circumstance—an’ he made it juist as we were aboot to pairt (whilk we did at the door o’ the public-hoose, as we chanced to forgaither there wi’ a loon wha engaged to let me see the way to the Barracks)—was that he wad hae an opportunity afore lang o’ reciprocatin’ my kindness an’ hospitality, as he expected in the coorse o’ sax weeks to be in Dundee on recruitin’ duty. It is almost unnecessary to remark that I’ve ne’er seen his face sinsyne, except at the Barracks a half-oor thereafter, an’ I’m very sure he’ll no come to Dundee in ony hurry, if he can avoid it.

Awa’ the laddie an’ me scoored to the Barracks, but it seemed to me that he led me a very roond-aboot road, an’ I verily believe he had been egged up to do sae by that scamp Bob, for I noticed him whisperin’ something into the puir bairn’s lug when he was engagin’ his services. Bob’s object in doin’ sae, nae doot, was this—to let Bill an’ him get into the Barracks afore my arrival, so that they micht hae time to put their comrades on the kwee veeve. That’s my idea o’t at ony rate, an’ I dinna think I’m very far wrang. If I had possessed as clear a conception o’ their rascality afore we gaed into the public-hoose as I did after, the sorra a moothfu’ o’ drink bocht by my siller wad hae gaen owre their craigs!

Ackin’ on the instructions Bob had gien me, namely to chap at the yett an’ spier for Captain So-and-so (I’ve forgot the man’s name noo), I boldly approached the muckle yett that spans the entrace to the Barracks, an’ lent it a stroke wi’ the tae o’ my boot.

“Who goes there?” inquires the sentry, wha was pacin’ back an’ fore at the entrance wi’ his gun restin’ obliquely forgainst his shoother, an’ the begnet stickin’ up into the air.

“A freend,” quoth I, as I had been instruckit to say by Bob.

“Pass,” quoth he.

Approachin’ the sentry, I speers at him if Captain So-an’-so was in the tenement, but my lad mak’s nae reply—tak’s not the slichtest notice, in fact, o’ my ceevil inquiry. I thocht this was rather odd, but as the idea struck me that the man micht peradventure be somewhat dull o’ hearin’, I followed him up (for he never ceased his pacin’ backwards an’ forwards), an’ layin’ my mooth to his lug, I repeated my question if Captain So-an’-so was within, in languidge emphatic eneugh to be audible owre a’ the Barracks, for a’ the size o’ them.

“Pass on, sir!” growled the sentry, bringin’ doon the neb o’ his gun until the weapon occupied a horizontal position, wi’ the sharp point o’ the begnet in close proximity to my midriff. “Don’t speak to the sentry, sir,” quoth he, an’ he lookit juist as if he were aboot to bore a hole into my body.

“What was yer business speakin’ to me, then?” quoth I. “Ye was the first transgressor. Haigh, ye’re an unco croose billie! What’s fish for the goose is surely fish for the ganner. Dinna suppose that I’m frichtened at yer shootin’ airns.”

This latter observation was made mair oot o’ a spirit o’ bravado, juist as the traveller wha forgaithers wi’ a lion tries sometimes to stare the monster oot o’ coontenance, that because I did not feel at that moment a considerable sense o’ personal insecurity. The plain matter o’ fack is—I was actually shakin’ frae head to fit, an’ wad hae gien ony money to be on the safe side o’ the yett.

By this time a score or twa o’ idle sodgers had gathered roond to see the ploy, an’, judgin’ frae their remarks, they seemed to be enjoyin’ the sport wi’ great gusto. I heard my ain name repeated frae mooth to mooth, I may say withoot leein’, a dizzen o’ times, an’ Tibbie’s as aften, an’ it seemed very strange to me that my personality sid be familiar to them, seein’ I had never beheld a single sowl o’ them between the e’en afore to my knowledge. At length an’ lang ane o’ them staps ootowre to me, an’ speers what I wantit. So I tauld him I wantit a word wi’ Captain So-an’-So.

“I’m captain So-an’-So,” quoth he. “What is your business with me?”

So I proceedit to acquaint him wi’ the nature’ o’ the ootrade that had been committed on Tibbie in the Tunnel—I expressed my extreme regret to hear that his guidwife had been similarly dealt wi’ only a month previous, an’ I wound up by requestin’ him to order oot the regiment for the purpose o’ captivatin’ the Venturolocust, who, I had been creditably informed, was the same individooal as had laid unlawfu’ lips upo’ Mrs Captain So-an’-So.

The Captain seemed mair divertit than edified by my narrative, but when I mentioned Mrs Captain So-an’-So, and spak’ o’ him orderin’ oot the regiment, he burst into a fit o’ inordinate laughter, which, to say the least, was far frae becomin’ in a man o’ his exalted rank an’ breedin’. Hoosomdever, the man wasna a’thegither to blame, for I found oot frae his ain mooth that he never had been married, an’ konsequently could hae had no wife whatsomever to be kissed, either by himsel’ or by the Venturolocust. Mair an’ further he tauld me, wi’ the utmost sincerity, that the sodgers were never employed in catchin’ ordinary blackguards, that bein’ the special prerogative o’ the police, but he advised me to gang my wa’s an’ lodge a complaint wi’ the first policeman I could see, an’ he didna doot but the result wad answer my expectations.

“But hoo d’ye alloo yer men to tell sae mony big lees?” quoth I. “It was a chield ca’d Bob wha sent me here—ane o’ yer idle clamjamphery o’ sodgers—an’ it was him that tauld me aboot yer wife, and guidness kens hoo mony mair untruths o’ a similar natur’. I’m far cheated too if yon’s no him standin’ ahent backs there, like the evil-doer that he is.”

“Just point him out, will ye?” quoth the Captain.

Bob was ower auld-farrant, however, for the moment he heard his name mentioned he dookit doon his head in the crood an’ disappeared.

Weary in body an’ sad at heart, I left the Barracks, after thankin’ the Captain for his civility, and set oot in quest o’ a policeman. Meanwhile the curtain fa’s ance mair on

Tammas Bodkin.

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