‘Bodkin and the Sharpers’ (2 December, 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 sit doon this week to gie ye a bit skrift o’ hoo I cam’ on wi’ my four funny freends after we had parrtit company wi’ the respectable pairty in the manner described in my last epistle.

After they had smokit an’ jokit till they were tired, they blew oot their pipes, an’ proceedit to “hae a yokin at sang aboot.” To this I had nae objection. I like a sang, providit it is a gude ane an’ well sung, an’ I canna say that their voices were unmelodious, though I will say that they were somewhat inharmonious, especially when they rose to the ledger lines aboon the stave, an’ that happened aftener than was quite agreeable to my lugs. Their sangs were not those wherewith I am weel acquent or greatly enamoured. I like sic melodies as “John Anderson,” “The Diel Amang the Tailors,” “The Flowers o’ the Forest,” an’ the twa Grays, “Duncan” an’ “Robin,” but they didna seem to ken or care ought aboot oor auld Scotch sangs. They had a great deal to say aboot ane “Robert Ridley,” extolled the professional abilities o’ some quack doctor wha had effected a “Perfeet Cure,” expressed a very decided preference for a “Glass o’ Good Beer,” an’ went on “Slap Bang” frae ae subect to anither, until I was nearly deaved wi’ their din. Hoosomdever they were in the greatest o’ gude humour, an’ as they were evidently doin’ their utmost to please me, it wad hae been baith ungratefu’ an ungentleman-like in me to have said onything in disparagement o’ their weel-meant endeavours. Therefore I listened wi’ apparent interest an’ pleasure, gave them an occasional word or nod o’ encouragement, but did not, in ony case, treat them to an encore.

Havin’ finished their musical enterteenment, they fell on anither kind o’ a ploy, not so harmless, I am sorry to say, as singin’ vulgar sangs. Ane o’ them pu’d a pack o’ cards frae his oxter pouch, whilk he begoud to shuffle an’ manipulate in a manner that made it perfectly apparent to me that he had a greater intimacy wi’ the Deil’s picture books than wi’ literature o’ a mair pious an’ profitable description. They proceedit to gam’le for siller amang themsels, an’ sundry croon pieces, half-sovereigns, an’ pound notes were in this way lost an’ won. The man that the cards belanged to seemed to be the ringleader amang them, an’ I noticed that he was losing his siller very fast, whereat he appeared to be greatly distressed, while the ither three billies, wha were winnin’, were apparently in high spirits by reason o’ their gude fortune.

“Very provoking, sir,” quoth the owner o’ the cards, addressin’ himsel’ to me. “I don’t mind the money so much, but hang it, I can’t stomach being beat! I’ve plenty of money, sir—plenty of money!” an’ he put his hands into his pouches, an’ brocht furth a gowpen-fu’ o’ gowd, whilk he jingled atweesh his loofs like a’ that.

“Aweel, sir,” quoth I, “it’s gude to be sib to siller, but, seein’ ye are weel, gin ye wad tak’ my advice ye wad haud yersel’ sae.”

“O, nonsense!” quoth he, giein’ his gowd anither jingle, an’ then conveyin’ it back again to his pouch. “My money comes light, sir, and I don’t mind if it should go light too, for what is the use of it if you don’t keep it circulating?”

“‘Deed that’s very true,” quoth I, “for siller is like a muck-midden—it does nae gude unless ye spread it.”

“A very sensible observation,” quoth he, “and I shouldn’t care if you had the chance of a pound or two as well as them fellows. Try your luck?”

“Muckle obleeged,” quoth I, “but I’m nae witch at gamellin’—I’m but a baugh hand at the cards—ye wud be sure to beat me an’ besides I’ve objections to them on moral grunds.”

“O, indeed,” quoth he, puttin’ on a look o’ surprise not unmingled wi’ disappointment, “you’re not a clergyman, are you?”

“No exactly that,” quoth I, “although I think I could preach as weel as some clergymen o’ my acquentance—if they wad alloo me to stick to my paper.”

“Not a clergyman?” quoth the fallow. “Then what are you, that you object to cards on moral grounds?”

“Weel,” quoth I, “gin ye will hae’t, I’m a teelyour; but I dinna see hoo the maker o’ a black coat sidna be at liberty to object to cart-playin’ as weel as the wearer thereof.”

“O, of course,” quoth the fallow. “Of course, my dear sir—you are perfectly at liberty to object to card-playing, if you think it is immoral, though I don’t think it is; but no matter. You are a tailor, you say?”

“Imph-m—a teelyour,” quoth I.

“Weel,” quoth he, puttin’ his hand into his pouch, “here are three little implements with the uses of which you are doubtless familiar.”

“Thimbles!” quoth I. “Three thimbles—are ye ane o’ the profession yersel’?”

“What do ye mean by the profession?” quoth he.

“I mean, are ye a teelyour?” quoth I.

“D’ye think I’m like a tailor?” quoth he.

“Like’s an ill mark,” quoth I, “for ye’ve juist noo ta’en me to be a clergyman. Noo, sir, I’m not a clergyman, an’ though I were to suppose you to be a tellyour that wadna mak’ you a teelyour—ye’re as like a clergyman as a teelyour—an’—an’—as like a rogue as an honest man.”

The latter pairt o’ the aboove sentence I said laigh in, so that he micht not hear it, as it is sometimes dangerous to utter exactly what ye think aboot folk, especially in their presence.

“Well,” quoth he, “I’m not a clergyman, sir; far from it—nor am I a tailor either—though,” he added after a pause, “I have had a good deal to do with thimbles in my time,” an’ here he cuist a knowin’ wink to his companions, wha had been amusin’ themsels by makin’ faces to ane anither durin’ the foregoin’ conversation—a fack whereof I had satisfied mysel’ by takin’ a transient glower at them frae underneath the rim o’ my hat on divers occasions when they thocht my attention was itherwise occupied.

“Maybe ye’re a thimble merchant,” quoth I—“a commercial traveller I mean, for ye’ll find them tick an’ three-fauld noo-a-days in every line o’ business ye could name—an’ I sometimes tak’ a thimble or twa an’ tippence worth o’ sharps frae gangeril chields juist sickline as ye are yersel’, though their coats are maybe waur in order than yours.”

“Well,” quoth he, “we are commercial travellers, but of a class rather superior to the persons you are accustomed to deal with—we are in the wholesale line, and many a one I have sold, I can tell you.” Alang wi’ the words in italics he cuist anither pawky sleekit-like glower towards his companions, wha acknowledged the reference to them by bitin’ their under lips, an’ turnin’ up the whites o’ their e’en. The expression “mony ane” I tane to refer to needles or thimbles, but I had reason belyve to gie it a very different interpretation; but I manna anticipate.

“Yea-yea,” quoth I, “ye’re drivin’ a roaring trade—are ye? I’m’ glad to hear sae, for I aye like to hear tell o’ folk thrivin’. It’s a gude sign o’ general prosperity when individuals are makin’ siller.”

“True,” quoth he, “you speak like a political economist. But we are losing our time, boys. Come, let me try my luck with the pea, since Dame Fortune has been so cursedly cruel to me with the cards. Perhaps the jade will smile on me yet. Eh, Tom?” said he, addressin’ his discoorse to ane o’ his accomplices, an’ at the same time producin’ frae his valise a little quare brod, whilk he laid flat on his knees, puttin three thimbles thereupon an’ a pea underneath ane o’ the said thimbles. “Eh, Tom? What say you to this? I’ll bet two to one that you won’t life the thimble with the pea in it.”

“Done!” cried Tom, clappin’ doon a pound note, while the man wi’ the thimbles flang doon twa o’ the same.

The operation began by the fallow liftin’ ane o’ the thimbles to show that the pea was underneath. He next proceedit to hurl the hail three o’ the thimbles upo’ the brod, garrin’ them spin hither an’ thither, an’ roond an’ roond, an’ oot an’ in, an’ back an’ fore, in every passible manner, juist as we see a wheen young folk doin’ when gaun through the reel o’ Hullachin’—a process I could never comprehend, though Tibbie was ance a great hand at it—an’ after he had made sic a complete mixtie-maxtie o’ them that it wad hae dung a German Professor to tell whilk was whilk, he crossed his airms ower his breist, wi’ his hands in his oxters, an’ says to Tom—”Two to one that you don’t take the pea.”

Tom sat or a second or twa scrutineezin the brod wi’ a very dubious air, an’ then he liftit ane o’ the thimbles. The pea was underneath! Tom was as big as the Chinese giant!

“Sold again!” sighed the loser. “Aint that most d— now! Well, it don’t matter much. That won’t break me yet. Plenty of money here yet,” an’ he hauled oot a perfect sheaf o’ pound notes. Twa o’ them he laid doon, an’ offered ony ane o’ the company the same chance as formerly, “Come along, Fred,” quoth he, addressing himsel’ to ane o’ his comrades wha sported a beard like a nanny-goat, an’ wore a huge gowd ring (maybe no genuwine) on the forefinger o’ his richt hand. “Come, Fred, try your luck—I know you are a fortunate dog. You never lost, you don’t. As them notes are agoin’ at any rate you may as well have a few as ‘any other man.’ Two to one again. Do ye say the word, Fred? Come now, time is precious, and we’ve a far way to go before the break o’ day, as we go marching along.”

An’ them the profane vagabonds began to sing—

“Glory, glory hallelujah,

As we go marching along.”

Meanwhile Fred had doused doon his pound note, an’ at the conclusion o’ the musical rehearsal the thumbler—whase name I noo learned for the first time was Tompkins—proceedit to put his three thumbles a’ reel-raal as he had done in Tom’s case.

Fred, withoot a moment’s hesitation, lifted ane o’ them, an’ there again was the pea!

“Sold, and sold again!” cried Tompkins, in a dreadfu’ rage. “D—d hard now—aint it? Losing my money right and left! Never do! Must try again, however—no use being hen-hearted! Well I shall get to be quite reckless by-and-bye. Here goes again. Five to one this time. Mr Snip, it must be your turn now. Does it not make your teeth water to see them fellows agetting all that money, and you getting none? I’ll be very generous with you, because you are a stranger, and—and a decent sort of a chap. Let me see. I lay down five pounds, you observe, and you lay down one. Very well, if you get the pea, you take this five pound note, and I take your one pound.”

“An’ what if I dinna tak’ the pea?” quoth I.

“O, money’s nothing to a chap like me,” quoth he, “Didn’t I tell you I would be generous with you? Yes, I can afford to be generous, and I shall be generous. I’ll give you back ten ‘bob,’ on condition that we try again. Could anything be fairer than that? Eh, Tom, what say you?”

Tom said it was mair than generous—it was in his humble opinion a piece o’ ootrageous extravagance, and evendoon recklessness.

“Well, you know, Tom I said I would be reckless,” quoth Tompkins, “and I’m determined to fulfil my promise. I’m a man of my word, Tom—nobody will dare say I am not.”

Tom signified his acquiescence in the correctitude o’ this affirmation.

When I begin to tell a story I aye like to tell the truth, the whole truth, an’—as Tibbie avers, something mair than the truth, but as I sall say for my ain pairt—naething but the truth, an’ although the transaction where-into I was simple eneugh to allow mysel’ to be led on this occasion was far frae creditable to my judgment [sic], yet I wad scorn to hide it under a bushel, even if the record thereof sid stand forgainst my name in a’ time comin’. I dinna mention the circumstance in order to shift the responsibility frae my ain sinfu’ shoothers, but scoondrels—the haill four o’ them—were sae earnest an’ eloquent in their efforts to get me to try my fortune that I couldna for the life o’ me resist them. In plain English, I doused doon my note, and keepin’ a strick e’e on the manipulation o’ the thimbles—I liftit ane o’ them an’ got the pea! Thus I became possessor—I sanna say the lawfu’ possessor—o’ the five pound note that Tompkins had tabled, while he pouched mine.

“Sold again!” quoth he, an’ the ill words he uttered were really very far frae bein’ either pleasant or edifyin’.

“My man,” quoth I, by way o’ enterin’ a gentle protest against my profanity, “ye seem to hae muckle prayer but unco little devotion aboot ye.”

“Easy for you to keep calm, Mr Snip,” quoth he, lookin’ dreadfully excited, “but here have I lost four pounds by this business.”

“True,” quoth I, “gatherin’ gear is a pleasant gain.”

“And losing it,” quoth he, “is not quite so pleasant I can tell you.”

“It’s no lost what a freend gets,” quoth I.

“Well,” quoth he, “the fewer friends of your sort I meet with the better”.

“I daursay,” quoth I, “ye never do a good turn but when ye mean an ill ane. Ye thocht to lick the butter aff my bread; but, aha, lad, ye maun bear in mind hencefurth that an inch o’ gude fortune is worth a fathom o’ forecast.”

“What d’ye say, Tom?—should I give it another trial?” quoth Tompkins.

“Decidedly,” quoth Tom. “If you don’t venture you’ll never win.”

“Five to one again, Mr Snip,” quoth Tompkins. “Same terms, and if I lose, why the dirty paper must just go, and be hanged to it.”

“Na, thank ye,” quoth I. “Better be blithe wi’ little than sad wi’ naething. I’’ll keep what I’ve got. It’s no canny haein’ to do wi’ you billies, for he needs a lang spoon that sups wi’ the deil.”

“D—d low!” quoth Tom—a verdict that seemed to meet wi’ universal acceptance amang my fast an’ funny fallow travellers.

“But you must play!” quoth Tompkins, lookin’ daggers at me. “I insist on it.”

“Nae must aboot it,” quoth I, “an’ ye may save yersel’ the trouble o’ insistin’.”

“Then you are a mean fellow,” quoth Tompkins.

“Then,” quoth I, “we’ll be muckle aboot ane, as the deil said to the collier.”

“Well,” quoth Tompkins, “I shouldn’t mind if I pitched you out at the window.”

“I can weel believe sae,” quoth I, “for ye’re like the bairns o’ Falkirk—ye mind naething but mischief.”

The haill four o’ them noo began to ban at nae allooance. Terrible was the vengeance they vowed against me if I wadna consent to stake anither pound, but as I kent we were drawin’ nigh to Dundee I stood firm as a rock an’ made my put gude wi’ them.

“Gentlemen,” quoth I, “there is an Act i’ the Laird o’ Grant’s Coort that no aboon eleven speak at ance.”

“And who cares for the Laird of Grant?” quoth Tompkins. “I insist that you give me a chance of wining [sic] back them four pounds of mine.”

“Yours!” quoth I, “the siller’s mine by richt o’ conquest. Ye were blawin’ a short while ago aboot yer generosity, but whaur has it a’ gane till?”

“Well,” quoth Tompkins, “it’s d—d hard to lose one’s money this way.”

“Sairs ye richt,” quoth I, “ye thocht to toom my pouch, but ye’ve fa’en into the trap ye had set for me. Though it canna be said that the deil’s bairns hae aye their daddy’s luck, yet that sometimes happens.”

“You’re a d— swindler,” quoth Tompkins.

“Ye shape shoon by yer ain shauchled feet,” quoth I.

By this time the train had reached the place whaur the tickets are colleckit, an’ as Mr Tompkins perceived that naething mair was to be made oot o’ me he prudently ceased to urge the quarrel to greater extremities. Thinks I, my lads I’ve eased ye o’ four pounds o’ yer ill-gotten gains at ony rate, but I had occasion belyve to see the maitter in a licht that was scarcely sae favourable to my ain pecuniary interests, an’ rather mair favourable to theirs. This untoward circumstance, hooever, maun wait for its devel-opement till a future opportunity.

The ticket collector havin’ requested me to deliver up my credentials, I presentit him wi’ my third-class ticket.

“You’ve travelled second-class with a third-class ticket,” quoth he. “You must say the difference.”

“I’ll see ye at the auld Haiks first!” quoth I. “It was ane o’ yer ain officials wha put me into this coach at Perth, an’ that for a very sufficient reason—namely, that he was the mean o’ garrin’ me an’ my guidwife tyne the last train, whereby I was put to the expense o’ hirin’ a veehickle for the conveyance o’ my guidwife aforesaid, and I had also to launch oot siller for sundry ither items, so if ye will hae the difference, ye maun apply to the Perth man an’ no to me.”

“I’ve got nothing to do with the Perth man,” quoth the ticket billie. “I look to you for payment, and I have it instantly.”

“That’s the way to bring him up!” quoth Tompkins, wi’ a malicious smile on his lip. “He’s an old cheating humbug—that’s what he is.”

“It wad be needless to expect onythin’ frae a sow but a grumph,” quoth I, “but gin ye dinna keep a mair civil tongue i’ yer head, I’ll—”

“Come, come,” quoth the ticket billie, “I can’t stand here all night—you must pay the difference, and no more nonsense.”

The difference was neither here nor there, an’ rather than hae ony further disputation aboot it, I paid it under protest, but I’ll remind that Perth billie o’ his double trick the neist time I forgaither wi’m.

“Od,” thinks I, as I stappit upo’ the platform, “I’m hame at last,” an’ never was I mair sensible than at that blessed moment o’ the truth o’ the auld saw whilk says “East or west, hame is best.”

I immediately hailed a cab, flang my forjeskit carkitch thereinto, an’ ordered the driver to convoy me to Crinoline Crescent, where great ancheety had existit for several oors in consequence o’ the non-arrival o’ Tibbie an’

Tammas Bodkin.

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