‘Bodkin Draws Tibbie’s Tooth’ (7 December, 1861)

The following is one of the many epistles 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,—A’ last week Tibbie gaed aboot an’ gloomed even on. Though I employed a’ my airts an’ blandishments wi’ her, though I gaed to the well, an’ brocht up the coals, tane oot the ase, an’ washed up the dinner dishes, lai on the fire i’ the mornin’, an’ made her cuppie o’ tea till her afore she rose, an’ her bed after, yet a’ wadna do—naething wad mollify if it got ae kick in the coorse o’ the four-and-twenty oors, it got a score o’ them, an’ the very tortoise couldna lift a fit to please her. For me, I couldna sup my kail to her satisfaction, an’, as for Willie Clippins, he gied great offence by his manner o’ scoorin’ the guse—he made ower muckle noise, she said, for ae thing, an’ he bleckt a’ the floor wi’t for anither; an’ so, atween Willie an’ me ben the hoose, an’ the creepie an’ the tortoise i’ the kitchen, Tibbie’s life was rendered quite miserable. Truly, she was a woman o’ a sorrowfu’ spirit.

Bein’ certain that neither Willie nor mysel’, nor the creepie, nor the tortoise, had been guilty o’ any greater misdemeanours than ordinary, I began to jealouse that something was wrang wi’ Tibbie hersel’. I was confirmed in this opinion by seein’ her takin’ a couple o’ Colosynth’s pills ae nicht to her supper, an’ my belief was still farther strengthened when, next mornin’, I observed the auld black teapat sotterin’ at the cheek o’ the fire, wherefrom there cam’ a strong ill-favoured combination o’ stinks that I was morally certain proceedit frae a decoction o’ salts an’ senna an’ horehund, an’ sic like graith. I made sundry kind inquiries as to the state o’ her health, but she wasna disposed to be communicative, an’ so I didna press my questions. By-an’-bye, hooever, i observed that her chouks began to swall oot to abnormal proportions, an’so I cam’ to the conclusion that Tibbie was labourin’ oonder that “hell o’ a diseases”—toothache. That quite explained to me the twist in Tibbie’s temperpin, for, o’ a’ the deseases Tibbie has ever been afflicket wi’ since she cam’ oonder my jurisdiction, toothache is the only ane that she could never thole wi’ ony degree o’ patience.

But the reason why she made nae remarks aboot her complaint was this:—Aboot a twalmonth syne I happened to hae a pretty dour attack o’ the same complaint, when, of coorse, I made an unco ootery, as it wad behoove ony mortal man to do oonder the circumstances, an’ Tibbie she wad hae a mustard-poultice applied to the braid-side o’ my head. This was a’ very weel, an’ I agreed to try the efficacy thereof; but ye’ll no hinder Tibbie to clap the mustard on my bare cheek, whereupon it a’ got claggit aboot the roots o’ my whiskers, an’ awa’ it wadna come. Aweel, in the coorse o’ natur’ it burned, an’ it burned, an’ it burned, oontil I was like to gang oot o’ my judgment wi’ the pain thereof; an’ the lang an’ the short o’t was that the skin cam’ harlin’ aff my cheek in blypes, leavin’ the hair standin’ in a wilderness o’ prood flesh. Dog on it! I was nae that weel pleased aboot it, an’ was plain eneuch to say sae; but Tibbie got up in an unco tirrivee, an’ quoth she, “Hech, I ‘sure ye, when ony little thing is the matter wi’ you, Tammas, ye sune let a’ the hoose hear o’t—makin’ sic a sang aboot a mere flech-bite, min. I wonder ye dinna think back burnin’ shame o’ yersel’! I’m sure I’ve had the toothache a thoosan’ times ower, an’ a thoosan’ times waur than you, Tammas, an’ did ye ever hear me grainin’ an’ makin’ a hullieballoo at that rate? But it’s aye the way wi’ you men folk—ye canna thole a stoond i’ the nail o’ yer muckle tae, but ye maun be cryin’ oot murder, an’ thrawin’ yer chafts as if ye had swallowed a hedge-hog, or a wasp’s bink wi’ a’ its inhabitants.” An’ so on she gaed, blawin’ her ain horn, an’ garrin’ me look unco sma’ indeed.

It is quite oonnecessary for me to observe that I was onything but weel pleased at havin’ to bide baith the skaith an’ the scorn o’ the business, an’ so, contrary to my usual, I spoke back geyan sharp, an’ quoth I, “The sorra’s i’ the woman—maun I thole to be skinned alive, an’ no hae the puir satisfaction o’ makin’ my moligrant thereanent? But bide ye, Tibbie, my woman—juist wait a blink till ye hae the toothache yersel’, an’ ye’se get leave to grain, an’ thraw yer chafts, an’ mak’ as lood a hullieballoo as ye like for me, I’m thinkin’, sae ye can tak’ a note o’ that, Tibbie.”

Wi’ that, ye ken, Tibbie cuist her head as heigh as the hen on a kirk steeple, an’, quoth she, “Ye’se never be deaved wi’ my din, Tammas, though a’ the teeth in my head sid ache from June to Januar.” An’ so it came to pass that Tibbie was determined to mak’ nae remark aboot her toothache, but strove to let aff he ill nature on me an’ Willie Clippins, an’ the creepie, an’ the tortoise.

Matters remained in this oonsatisfactory state for three nichts, durin’ which it was impossible to get a wink o’ rest for her kickin’ an’ tossin’ aboot i’ the bed, and for twa days durin’ which it was equally impossible to get a peaceable or even a civil word oot o’ her mooth. An’ aye she taen the ither sook o’ the black teapat, an’ sometimes she wad anoint her gums wi’ double-strong rum. Then she wad chaw at raw ingans, an’ even gaed the length o’ takin’ a fluff o’ my pipe, whereby she was sickened, an’ had to lie doon for an hoor in the midst o’ her floor washin’.

But still Tibbie never ance let the word toothache ootower her lps, though she wad hae gien the best tooth in a’ her head to have got the thing itsel’ oot o’ her mooth. Doctors an’ dentists she has nae faith in, an’ so she never ance thocht o’ gettin’ the offendin’ tooth extracted. There was a cousin o’ her’s—a shoemaker in Edinbro’—wha, in standin’ thereoot to see Burk hanged, in the February o’ auchteen twenty-nine (weel do I mind o’ that mornin’ yet), got a sair dose o’ the toothache, an’ he wad hae the tooth drawn; but the doctor’s nippers happenin’ to slip, the puir fellow got his jaw blade broken, whereby he suffered a warld o’ agony for the space o’ four months, and was never able to whistle the “Flowers o’ the Forest” ahint it, though he had previously been considered a perfect prodigy o’ a whistler. Tibbie never forgot that melancholy catastrophe, an’ frae that time furth, she resolved, be the consequences what they micht, never to alloo a doctor to put his nippers within the precincts o’ her gab on ony pretence whatsoever, an’ Tibbie is a woman o’ her word.

About four o’clock on Monday mornin’, I waukened oot o’ a soond sleep an’ faund Tibbie sittin’ up i’ the bed in an awfu’ agony o’ distress. She had her head rowed up in a flannel petticoat, an’ doon her cheeks there cam’ hap-happin’ the saut burnin’ tears, an’ frae the inmost recesses o’ her heart cam’ heavn’ mony a lang an’ bitter sigh. ‘Od, I canna tell hoo muckle concerned I was to see Tibbie in sic a purgatory o’ pain, an’ quoth I, “Tibbie, my dautie, tell me what is the matter wi’ ye, an’ I’m sure I’se pour the balm o’ Gilead into yer troubled soul if ye really think I can do onything for yer easement.”

Tibbie, chastened by the rod o’ sair affliction, was noo as humble as a very child, an’ quoth she, “O, Tammas! Tammas! I wish I were dead, for I canna thole that toothache ony langer. My very head is like to rent, Tammas, an’ I’ve tane twa patfu’ o’ salts an’ senna, too, forbye a half-grill o’ the best double-strong rum, an’ I doot the balm o’ Gilead wad do me nae good, Tammas. O dear, what’ll I do? what’ll I do-o-o, Tammas?” A fresh ootburst o’ tears again deprived her o’ utterance, an’ she duntit her very head against the bed in the paroxysim o’ her exceedin’ great agony.

“Weel, weel, Tibbie, my woman,” quoth I, puttin’ ane o’ my arms roond her neck, an’ clappin’ her on the shoother wi’ the ither hand, “if the balm o’ Gilead winna do, what think ye o’ the warm guse?”

“Ay, ay, Tammas,” quoth she, “it like the heat, an’ I wad try ony—ony thing ye like to name for a moment’s lcense frae this worm that never dees, Tammas, for O its gnaw-gnawn’ is sair, sair to bide!”

Whereupon I arose, kindled the fire, an’ toastit the guse, until she was juist within an inch o’ bein’ redhet. Then I rowed her up in the dishclout, lest peradventure she micht set fire to the bed-claes, or—what wadna be muckle better—scowder a’ the braid side o’ Tibbie’s head; an’, lastly, I laid her doon on the pillow, an’ wi’ my an hands placed Tibbie’s cheek in close proximity thereunto. For the space o’ twenty minutes or sae, the heat had a soothin’ effect, an’ Tibbie was beginnin’ to craw a wee thocht croose again, but lo! and behold, the agony returned wi’ renewed vigour, an’ hurried her back to despair.

What was do be done? Gang for the doctor an’ get the tooth drawn? Na, na, Tibbie was sworn against that; she wad rather bear the ills she had than flee to ithers that micht be waur—if waur could be. Hoosomdever I prevailed on her to let me see the tooth. So it turned oot to be ane o’ her e’e teeth, an’ that accoonts for the excruciatin’ agony wherewith her head-piece was afflickit. Moreover, it was quite slack i’ the gum, an’ there was a hole in the braid side o’t, an’ so I proposed to stuff it up wi’ gutta-percha, the gude effects whereof I had mysel’ experienced in a like emergency. To this Tibbie consentit, because, as she is convinced that the toothache proceeds frae the gnawin’ o’ a sma’ worm in the nerve o’ the tooth, she imagined that if the hole could be hermetically sealed up, the said worm wa soon dee for want o’ breath. It was my private opinion, hooever, that the tooth could be easily pulled by means o’ a rosety string kinched roond the root thereof, although, of coorse, I kept Tibbie in the dark on that point. When makin’ ready the gutta-percha, therefore, I, at the same time, prepared a string, composed o’ six plies o’ the very best corduroy thread, which I anointed wi’ roset. I then cuist a kinch on the end o’t, an’ had a’ thing ready for whatever opportunity micht present itsel’.

“Noo, Tibbie,” quoth I, “gape weel till I get in the stuffin’.” So she lifted her jaws as wide as their swollen condition wad permit, an’, in the twinklin’ o’ an e’e, I had the rosety string firmly secured roond the rotten stump. Noo, thinks I, for the grand pull; but losh I hadna the pooer to budge, an’ I shook a’ ower frae tap to tae, for what wad Tibbie say to the business? To draw her tooth wad be a michty offence; but to practice a deception on the honest woman at the same time wad be in her eyes an unpardonable transgression. Hoosomdever, frae that stae o’ perplexity I was relieved by a happy idea that tane possession o’ my noddle, an’ that I canna view in ony ither licht than as the result o’ supernatural inspiration. Nae sooner was that idea conceived than I put it in execution. I’ve already observed that I had ae end o’ the string roond Tibbie’s tooth. I noo secured the ither end thereof to the guse, an’, quoth I, “Tibbie, that guse is spoilin’ the blankets, for I feel a strong smel o’ ooen clouts burnin’; ye’re nearer her than I am, fling her ootower to the floor-head.” Nae sooner said than dune; but if ye had only heard the squile that Tibbie gied when her tooth followed the guse!

“Oh, Tammas! Tammas!” quoth she, “my head’s awa’, an’ I’m as dead’s a gorbet;” an’ Tibbie’s heart actually gaed awa’ for a few seconds, though, by gude luck, her head was aye to the fore. My certie! I was rather fleyed at my ain handiwark; but hoosomdever, I had the presence o’ mind to dash a tea-cupfu’ o’ water ower her temples, an’ so , wi’ a deep sigh, she cam’ till hersel’ again, an’, glowerin’ roond her, wi’ a wild expression on her coontenance, rendered a’ the wilder-like by the blude that was oozin’ oot frae the wicks o’ her mou’, quoth she, “Tammas, whether am I in this warld, or the ither warld, or where on earth am I?”

So I clappit her on the shoother, an’ soothed her the best way I could, tellin’ her that she was in her ain hoose at hame, an’ had juist wi’ her ain richt hand achieved a great victory ower a very troublesome enemy. Bein’ convinced that she was still a livin’ mortal, she brichtened up belyve and put her arms roond my neck. So I put my arms roond her’s, and I wad hae kissed her too, had it no been for the blude wherewith her lips were a’ besmeared, but as it was I contented mysel’ wi’ simply layin’ my cheek on her’s, and gien her a general hug to my bosom.

“O Tammas,” quoth Tibbie, “that gutta-percha maun surely be a powerfu’ drug, for I verily thocht my head was aff wi’t, but I assure ye it has made an effectual cure o’ me, for the pain is clean awa noo, Tammas; but bless me, Tammas, where ava is my stump o’ a tooth?”

“Have a care o’s a’, Tibbie,” quoth I, “hae ye tint sicht o’ yer tooth my woman? Are ye sure ye hae nae swallowed it? The like has happened afore noo.”

“Feint a swallow, did I swallow it, Tammas; but there’s nae tooth here onyhoo,” quoth Tibbie, feelin’ the hole wi’ her finger.

“That maun be something very marvellous indeed, Tibbie,” quoth I, “but bide a wee ‘oman, are ye sure ye didna fling it ootower the bed wi’ the guse. Losh an’ ye’ve just dune that, Tibbie! Heard ye ever the like o’ that? Ye see I behooved to hae the string fastened roond it, in order to get the gutta percha properly fastened, an’ the ither end had somehoo or ither got entangled wi’ the guse, an’ that’s hoo it happened, Tibbie. So if ye’ve yersel’ to blame for’t, for ye’ll recollect I had nae hand in flingin’ the guse to the floor-head.”

“It matters nae wha did it, Tammas, since it is dune,” quoth Tibbie, “an’ troth it’s weel awa frae me, for I’m sure I’ve never blindit for three nichts wi’t.”

I wad hae been mair than mortal had I no been mair than weel leased wi’ the success o’ my experiment. In the coorse o’ half-an-oor Tbbie fell asleep an’ as it was the first time she had closed an e’e for three nichts on end, I let her sleep on oondisturbed till the back o’ dinner time. To this oor an’ day yet, Tibbie ascribes the extraction o’ her tooth to a happy accident, rather than to the dexterous management an’ sagacity o’ her beloved husband,

Tammas Bodkin.

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