‘Bodkin Terribly Hum-Bugged’ (8 June, 1861)

The following epistle is an early appearance in ‘The People’s Journal’ of 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,—It’s an auld sayin’, an’ a true ane, that man is born to trouble as the sparks flee upwards. This truth, at ony rate, appears to haud guid in my case, for I’m sure I’m like the doo that Noah sent oot frae the wark afore the waters were abaitit, I canna find rest for the sole o’ my fit. On ilka side I’m environed wi’ deep waters, whereof the billows threaten to devoor me wi’ their angry jaws. Sin’ I inditit my last epistle, I’ve been in the warst pickle that ever mortal man was in, frae the eatin’ o’ the forbidden fruit doon to this present day an’ generation. As I’ve aye thocht it a relief to hae a sensible body to mak’ my molygrant till, even when my grief was unaswageable by human sympathy, I’ve juist sittin’ doon to tell ye a’ the oots an’ the ins o’ my present tribulation.

Weel, ye see, to begin at the beginnin’, by superhuman efforts, Tibbie had made a’thing trig an’ braw aboot oor new hoose by the approach o’ Saturday nicht, an’, sair worn oot though she was wi’ the hard wark, she was yet “as canty as a kittlin’,” an’ couldna eneuch admire the effecks o’ her handiwark in a’ the holes an’ corners o’ the bit biggin’, especially the parlour—Tibbie couldna get her sairin’ o’ lookin’ at it. A’ the bits o’ nick-nacks were tried in a thoosan’ different positions, wi’ the view o’ garrin’ them produce the grandest possible effeck at the sma’est possible expense; an’ sae, after everything had been arranged to her entire, an’, I may say, intense, satisfaction, Mrs Davidson was sent for. Alang she cam’ on Saturday nicht, an’ Tibbie taen care to hae on her net-mutch, an’ a braw new sawton apron that she got to the boot o’ the bargain when she was buyin’ her window curtains (so she said to me, an’ I’ve nae richt to misdoot her word), an’ a’ to mak’ her appear brawer an’ younger lookin’ than Mrs Davidson. I juist stood an’ beheld the twa o’ them, for I faund it to be physically impossible for me to edge in my word into the conversation. Tibbie waxed exceedingly eloquent, an’ enlairged on the guid properties o’ the hoose, an’ the splendaciousness o’ the parlour, in a manner that was truly edifeein’ an’ marvellous in a woman o’ her edication. Mrs Davidson did aboot a tenth pairt o’ the conversation, Tibbie she gaed through nine-tenths thereof, an’ I did the rest. So Tibbie bade Mrs Davidson sit doon on a new sofy, an’ then cam’ a interteenment o’ wine an’ cake, whereof we a’ partook, an’ drank succes to the new hoose. I thocht i’ my ain mind that less micht hae saired than waistin’ my means and substance on wine at half-a-croon or three shillins the bottle for the sake o’ Mrs Davidson; but I said naething, the mair sae as it was a’ done oot o’ a guid intention on Tibbie’s pairt, in order to tak the shine oot o’ Mrs Davidson—an achievement that wad refleck fully as muckle honour on me as on Tibbie. So after sittin’ a half-oor or sae—rather ooneasily as I thocht—Mrs Davidson raise an’ tane her departure. “I needna bid ye come alang some nicht an’ see me,” quoth she, wi’ a toss o’ her head, an’ in a voice falterin’ wi’ vexation an’ rage combined, “for ye’ll be thinkin’ yersels ower high noo for kennin’ ony o’ yer auld acquaintances.” An’ awa her ladyship gaed unco skeigh lookin’, an’ I’m thinkin’ John Davidson heard aboot oor new sofy an’ carpet, an’ window-pole, an’ moreen curtains, i’ the deafest side o’ his head afore he got sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eyelids that nicht. No ae wink o’ rest will he get, puir man, till Mrs Davidson be upsides wi’ Mrs Bodkin.

Tibbie’s triumph was complete. She was as prood as ever was a general after gainin’ a great victory. She had eclipsed Mrs Davidson! Tibbie laid doon her head that nicht on her pillow wi’ the consciousness that she had done her duty, an’ she was as happy as the Queen o’ Sheba, or rather, as Solomon was after showin’ that lady a’ his riches an’ the glory was after showin’ that lady a’ his riches an’ the glory o’ his excellence. For me, I lay doon thinkin’ o’ the poor o’ siller that Tibbie’s plenishin’ fever had cost, an’ yet I did’na grudge her aither, for Tibbie has been a guid wife to me.

Atween ane an’ twa o’clock i’ the mornin’—for I had got the gowkoo knock set to the road again—Tibbie waukens me, an’ quoth she “Tammas! Tammas! are ye sleepin’?” “Aye, I’m sleepin’; what are ye wantin?” quoth I. “Wauken this instant, Tammas,” quoth she, “for there’s a flech i’ the bed.” “Yea, yea, woman,” quoth I, “an’ hoo can I help that?” “Rise an’ licht a candle,” quoth she, “for a wink o’ sleep I canna get till I draw blude o’ the monster. It’s been gallopin’ back an’ fore ower my face, an’ doon my neck, an’ in below my oxters for an oor an’ mair, an’ it’s been bitin’ as if it hadna seen meat for a fortnicht. It maun be a flech o’ a new breed surely, for a mair ferocious tyke I never had for a bedfellow.” “It’s maybe a descendant o’ ane o’ the gentry that plaguit Pharoah,” quoth I. “Gude kens what it has descendit frae,” quoth Tibbie, “but my carcase is payin’ for’t ony way.” “Ou! it’s maybe no a flech ava,” quoth I; “it’s maybe a clipsheer.” “Gae awa wi’ yer nonsense,” quoth Tibbie, “this is no the time o’ year o’ clipsheers; get ye up an’ licht a spunk.” “It’s maybe a golloch, Tibbie, or what they ca’ a black beetle,” quoth I, “for I was readin’ i’ the papers the ither day o’ a wean that had been completely devoored wi’ black beetles.” I tried to enlichten Tibbie a wee bit on the science o’ entomology, thinkin’ to divert her aff the flech story, for I was richt tired an’ sleepy, an’ sweer to rise oot o’ my warm bed in the dead oor o’ the nicht to embark in a flech hunt, but a’ my efforts to amuse her only made her ten times waur than ever, for my description o’ ants an’ ettercaps, an’ forkytails, an’ contipedes, wrocht sae on her imagination that she actually began to think the whole bed was crawlin’ wi’ vermin. There was nae help for it, but I maun rise. So I lichtit a candle, an’ Tibbie set to wark. Ever fold o’ the bed claes was as carefully inspeckit as if she had been searchin’ for hid treasure, but feint a flech, or ony ither creepin’ or jumpin’ creature, was to be seen. “Hoots, Tibbie,” quoth I, “if it was a flech, it maun hae ta’en to itsel’ the wings o’ the mornin’, so ye’ll juist creep doon, an’ lie at peace, an’ let me get my nicht’s sleep..” I blew oot the candle, muckle to Tibbie’s dissatisfaction, but it didna matter, for I wasna to want my rest for the best flech that ever sookit human blude. Half a dizzen o’ times was I waukened afore the chap o’ sax o’ clock, an’ it was aye the auld story—the flech, the flech! Afore I had dune shavin’, Tibbie had ever stitch o’ the bed-claes i’ the floor, ay, even the very chaff bed was turned upside doon. Tibbie’s face was in an unco perdicament. Her een were scarcely veesible, juist like Tam Sayers’ after the battle of Farnborough; her cheeks were swalled, an’ as red as boiled labsters; her arms and neck were a’ covered wi’ big lumps, an’ she “felt a’ ower.” juist as if she had haen the itch. “Aye, aye, Tibbie,” quoth I, “thae flechs o’ yours maun be very accomplished practitioners. Nae mair use for flee blisters noo, Tibbie, to produce counter irritation. We micht do waur than set up a sanitarium, an’ adverteese for patients afflickit wi’ inflammitary diseases. We micht mak’ a fortune in naetime.” Tibbie was sae anxious huntin’ for the loon that did it, that she tane nae notice o’ my remarks, but feint a flech could Tibbie see. “Weel, that cows a’ that ever I heard tell o’,” quoth Tibbie, after she had searched an’ better than searched for the maist feck o’ an oor, “but I’ll be upsides wi’ them yet, afore I’m mony oors aulder.”

Tibbie’s face was sae oonseemly wi’ the swellin’, that she couldna gang to the kirk, an’ I stayed at hame wi’ her to meenister a’ the consolation that I could gie. After dinner time Tibbie fell foul o’ the bed again, and this time she got hands o’ a broon beastie scuddin’ across the pillow like five ell o’ wund. Tibbie soon arrestit his progress, hooever, an’ was juist aboot to lay violent hands on him, when I suggestit that it wad be better to keep him prisoner till Mrs Davidson sid see him, an’ pass her opinion on him, for he surpassed my comprehension. To this Tibbie agreed, an’ sae I clappit him into an auld snuff-box, an’, Sabbath though it was, I slippit awa alang i’ the e’enin’ to Mrs Davidson’s. Whenever she clappit her een on the creepin’ wonder, she pronounced it to be a—bug! My very flesh creepit to think I had been sleepin’ in the society o’ cattle o’ that description. Mrs Davidson entered into a full, a true, an’ a particular accoont o’ a’ the oots an’ ins o’ the bug economy, an’ seemed to hae the haill story in her head like a horn. Thinks I, my leddy, ye’ve learned nae that little o’ that frae dear-bocht experience, nae doot, though it wad be scarcely polite in me to spier in what schule ye tain yer degree. For me, I’ve read nae that few beuks i’ my lifetime noo, but I never met wi’ ane that undertook to enlichten me on the science o’ bugs. Felk that dinna hae them ken naething aboot them, because folk that do hae them are generally up to keepin’ a secret.

Hame I gaed to Tibbie wi’ the oonwelcome tidin’s that the hoose was infested wi’ bugs. Mrs Davidson cam alang wi’ me. Tibbie gaed like a woman distrackit, an’ there was a steerie i’ the hoose nae ordinary . Mrs Davidon taen a breakfast knife na’ ran it up through the seams i’ the doors, an’ ahent the washin’ boords, an’ brocht them oot in thoosan’s. She held the knife to my nose, an’ I thocht I wad hae been scomfished wi’ the diabolical smell o’ a bug frae his time forth an’ for ever. It put a feather in Mrs Davidson’s cap to see Tibbie an’ me sae disgustit wi’ oor new hoose, an’ she taen her departure in a better frame o’ mind than she did the nicht afore. Bed-time cam, an’ Tibbie liftit the carpet in the parlour, drew the sofy into the middle o’ the floor, sprinkled a circle o’ floor o’ brumstane roond it, to prevent the approach o’ her arch-enemies, an’ made her bed i’ the sofy for the nicht her liefu’ lane. As for me, the bugs hadna daured to lift a tooth on my hide, an’ sae I crap awa to my bed as usual. It was a waukrife nicht to baith Tibbie an’ me. Aye noo an’ again through the nicht watches, I heard Tibbie sabbin’ like to break her very heart. Poor bodie, I was wae for her! On Monday mornin’, we baith got up, but no ae bite o’ breakfast crossed oor craigs, for the idea o’ the bugs sae hauntit oor imagination that ever ooncommon appearance in the brea, the butter, an’ the tea, was straightway transmogrified into ane o’ thae deil’s buckies. Tibbie was lost in meditation—her grief was ower deep for utterance. An’ what addit to oor sorrows, we were strangers an’ pilgrims in that place o’ the toon—naebody cam’ to meenister a single word o’ comfort. The only solitary blink o’ sunshine that cam’ to lichten oor stricken souls that day, was when the boxie wi’ the eggs frae oor weel-wishers oot bye at Hatton Hill was handit in. That token o’ respect frae freends we never saw, cam’ to us like dew upon the mown grass. Tibbie brichtened up awee, an’ I was as glad as if ony body had gien me a lairdship o’ my ain, to see the smile creepin’ ower her begrutten-like countenance,

“But, all I recollection at hand

Soon hurried her back to despair,”

an’ again the big roond tears cam’ hap happin’ doon his honest cheeks. Hoosoomdever, Tibbie boil’t the eggs, an’ they were the only food that her an’ me could stamack a’ that blessed day. I’ve a notion in my head that I mean to put in execution afore the lapse o’ mony oors, whereby Tibbie sall be delivered oot o’ her sair affliction, but I’ve neither time nor space at command i’ th’ meantime to set it doon in wreatin’, though ye may look oot for a lang skreed aboot it next week, if the bugs dinna devoor us up stoup an’ roup afore that time.—Yours,

Tammas Bodkin.

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