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Malvern uses her gift for enthralling prose to recreate Lauder’s experiences in this page-turner, available for the first time in ebook.
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The Story of Harry Lauder
By Gladys Malvern, Corinne Malvern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Gladys Malvern Estate
All rights reserved.
"WHERE," demanded Isabella Urquhart McLeod MacLennan Lauder, "is wee Harry? Where can th' laddie be keepin' himsel'— an' it a Setterday?"
Six small round faces gazed up at her earnestly as she moved back and forth from the table to the great open fireplace where a huge pot of soup was bubbling invitingly, and the black iron kettle was making a little gurgling sound and thick oatcakes were slowly turning a luscious golden brown. The Lauder kitchen, with its low, smoke-blackened rafters and its flagstone floor, was an immaculate and crowded place. The floor was still damp from its recent scrubbing, and off in the far corner was a wooden double bed, a homemade cradle beside it. Already set for nine places, the table occupied the center space. A few straightbacked, badly scuffed chairs were lined up on either side of it, and off to the left was a large "dresser" with a glass front where Isabella kept her dishes. From pegs on the door hung a dark woolen shawl, a man's pair of pants, and several small, much-worn jackets of varying sizes. The walls, once whitewashed, were a dingy, dispirited gray.
Six children, the oldest, Matt, not yet seven, were playing in a group on the floor. Isabella, her ground-length dress faded with many washings, her wide apron tied about her buxom waist, put some tea in a large, earthenware pot and glanced concernedly at the battered old clock on the mantel. She was a competent, cheerful soul, was Isabella, but now she heaved a deep sigh of exasperation, for what with the ten of them, there was always so much to do in that shabby, incredibly little house.
Patching — why, it seemed to Isabella that she was forever putting patches upon small garments until there was scarcely so much as an inch of the original fabric left; and the washing! Eight children, the oldest only eight, meant almost interminable hours over the washtub. But Isabella was strong and energetic. It was not the toil she minded, it was the constant nagging anxiety about money. Scarcely enough to buy food for the lot of them from one week's end to the other. No matter how she schemed and scrimped there was rarely a penny left over to put in the kist on the mantel for that constantly anticipated "rainy day." And what would they do if John or one of the bairns got sick? John was a good, conscientious workman, but suppose he were laid off? How would they live? How would they buy medicines? Charity — oh, God save them from the horror of ever having to take so much as a tuppence of charity!
"Pigs," declared Matthew out of a long deep silence.
Isabella stopped and gazed down at him sharply. "Eh?"
"Pigs," he repeated solemnly, and then, as if by way of explanation, "Harry."
"Huh!" she frowned. "Pigs! An' it a Setterday!"
Saturday was the busiest day of all for Isabella, for on Saturday clothes must be prepared for church, and two days' cooking must be accomplished. The Lauders kept the Sabbath in the strict Scotch custom. No work was done and the children were allowed no games. All day Sunday the blinds in that tiny whitewashed cottage were drawn. No matter how inclement the weather, she and John went to the kirk in the morning and the children, shiny-clean, went to Sunday School. Then when the gloaming hung softly and wistfully over the quiet land, Isabella would gather her weans about her and read them stories from the Old Testament.
Sunday meant the nearest thing to ease that she and John had ever known. They had no knowledge of what the world calls the good things of life. They had never traveled, had never enjoyed the luxuries that make for gracious living. They had known toil and sacrifice; they had known poverty — harsh, unremitting — but one clear, enduring, shiny thing they had, and that was a simple, unshakable faith in the goodness of God.
Sometimes Isabella mused that it would be nice to have a house a bit larger than two rooms, it would be nice to see what sort of place the rest of Scotland was. Of course, she and John had not always lived here in Musselburgh. John came from Edinburgh, and she came from the Black Isle in Ross-shire. Then there was Portobello a few miles away, where her oldest son, Harry, had been born on August 4th, 1870. She scowled. Where was the laddie, anyhow?
A fine help around the house, was Harry. Even now, even at eight, he could bathe the weans as well as she could; and when, some months ago she had been bringing the last one into the world, Harry had actually done not only the cooking for the family, but the washing as well.
"Pigs," said Matt again, with extreme seriousness.
"Aye. That's where he is, ye ken. Doon lookin' at Wattie Sandiland's pigs. He'll stand lookin' at th' pigs for hours, as if they were white angels oot o' Heaven. Your faither says it's because Harry's gaen tae be a farmer when he grows up. Aweel, it's a guid business. I mind ma ain faither was a carpenter, but Harry'll be a farmer, richt enough, th' way he's that fond o' th' soo craes. He —"
She broke off, put both reddened hands on her hips, and stood grimly waiting. He was coming home at last, and despite herself a fond maternal smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. Singing! Aye a one for singin'! Hymns that he had learned at Sabbath School mostly, and Annie Laurie and The Campbells are Comin', and now and then one of the popular songs of the day that he had picked up — she never knew how.
He had a strong, sure voice for a lad of eight. Whenever Harry sang, he put such zest into it that it was all she could do to keep from singing with him. But this was no time for singing. Now, she reminded herself firmly, she was going to be very stern and teach the young rascal a lesson.
His song ceased as he entered the kitchen and he stood grinning up at her despite the severity of her frown. Small for his age, but strong and sturdily built, he was not — even Isabella had to admit it — what would be called a handsome child. His hair was auburn, straight and unruly. His nose was too big and his ears were too big, but he had a grin that was wide and contagious, and his small blue eyes had a perpetual twinkle in them, as if he found the world a delightfully amusing place.
So they stood, looking at each other. It was a ludicrous picture he made, his feet bare, his clothes patched and soiled, his auburn hair tousled from the wind. His straight little body, so small itself, was wrapped in a heavy plaid among the folds of which, cradled like a papoose on his back, was the latest Lauder infant.
He was not abashed at her frown. He understood her too well and loved her too much to fear her.
"A graund time it is for ye tae be singin'," she fumed. "That voice o' yours — I mind th' day ye were born. A gey row ye kickit up. Th' neighbors doon th' street heard ye roarin' an' cam' ower tae ask if ye was twins. Come here tae me."
He came, and turned his back to her without being told to do so. She unwound the heavy plaid and took the wean in her arms.
"D'ye mind it's a Setterday?" she scowled. "An' where hae ye been?"
The grin widened, the eyes were bright with excitement. "Mither," he ordered, his legs apart and his head up-flung, "hold oot your hand!"
Wonderingly, she did so, and he dropped a sixpence into it. She gasped. He had expected her to gasp like that. This was the proudest day of his life, the day he brought home to his mother the first money he had earned. His had been no carefree childhood. He knew the scheming which preceded the spending of every penny. And now he was able to help.
It was wonderful. He felt grown up and proud of himself.
Her eyes still on the sixpence, Isabella sank into a convenient chair as if the sudden shock of unexpected wealth had drained the strength from her legs. Then she looked up at her son.
"Where — did ye — get — this?"
"I earned it. I've been workin' a week for Wattie. There'll be mair next week, Mither! A whole sixpence! Wattie said if I'd help him feed th' pigs every day he'd gie me a sixpence every Setterday."
He expected her to laugh, but she did not. Her eyes were grave. She knew Wattie Sandiland. Every day he went around town collecting swill for his pigs. He was old, cranky, and he had a quick temper.
"I'm tae help him mix th' stuff for th' pigs," went on Harry, "and I'm tae help him dump it in th' soo craes every evenin'."
Her eyes filled with tears. "It's — no that I'm no gratefu' for th' siller, wee Harry," she told him softly, "but Wattie's an ould mon an' he's quick wi' his blows."
Harry laughed. He did not mind Wattle's irritability. The sixpence was the important thing.
She sighed. "Aweel, I'll speak tae your faither when he comes hame th' nicht."
He could not understand why she was not happy about the money. All the way home he had thought how she would laugh when she saw it, and how gay she would be as this week she would be able to drop a penny or two in the kist.
"Are ye fash wi' me, Mither?" he asked.
She smiled and patted his shoulder. "No, Harry, no. You're a guid lad."
"Then — tell us a story!"
Even the younger children knew that word, and now they all began to echo it, crowding about her eagerly, faces upturned and expectant.
"A story, Mither! A story!"
Isabella gave a deep, martyrlike sigh. There was work to do and little time in which to do it before John would be coming home from the pottery works; but often before this she had stopped in the midst of her labors to acquiesce in the demands for a story. She had, it seemed, an unending fund of stories, and she delighted in telling them as much as her brood enjoyed hearing them. And what hair-raising tales they were! Stories of the Scots clans; stories of bogles, ghosts; stories of witches and water-kelpies and fairies.
The infant still in her arms, the seven older children squatting in a semicircle about her, Isabella's eyes widened ominously, and her voice sank to a deep, impressively sepulchral tone.
"Once — upon — a time —"
Harry, Matt, George, Jock, Alec, Bella, Mary, Jean — there they were, all silent as little statues. Now and then as she stressed dark, dread happenings in the Scottish glens, one of them shivered and gave a quick, apprehensive glance over his shoulder.
As the story was ending, John Lauder came in, swinging his lunch pail. The children scrambled to their feet and ran toward him, clutching at his knees, pulling at his coat.
"Faither!" cried Matt, "Harry's made some siller!"
Isabella, the baby balanced on one arm, walked briskly over to the fireplace and began stirring the soup with a long-handled ladle.
"Aye, John, it's true. Harry's made a sixpence helpin' Wattie Sandiland wi' his pigs."
John smiled. He was a short man in his late twenties, slender and hardy. "It'll be guid experience for him," he declared cheerily, "it wull so. Th' lad'll be a farmer when he grows up. Let th' flea stick tae th' wa'."
Like the proverbial flea sticking to the wall, Harry showed up at Wattie Sandiland's soo craes promptly every evening for two weeks. He was ambitious, was Harry, and eager to please. Engrossed in his work, he mixed the swill and stirred it energetically with a long stick. Then, straining his mucles until his young face was blood-red and puffy, he lifted the heavy tins and dumped them into the trough.
But at the end of two weeks Isabella's fears were realized. Her son came home one evening, his face swollen from a blow of Wattkie's hand, his backside raw, his bare legs bruised. It did not matter that he had been unmercifully beaten. What mattered was that he had lost his job.
"It wasna' ma fault," he explained lugubriously to his mother, "one o' th' pigs deed. She choked on a biscuit that was i' th' swill an' deed. An' Wattie said I shouldna' hae let her eat th' biscuit."
He sobbed a little after he went to bed that night, not only because of the pain in his body but because his pig-feeding career had ended. Yet he had tasted the joy of earning money, and he meant to be out looking for other employment as soon as school was over on the morrow.
"Hae ye said your prayers?" asked Isabella from the doorway.
In his sorrow, he had forgotten to pray. Now, stiffly, he climbed out of bed and knelt.
"As I lay me doon this night tae sleep,
I pray th' Lord ma soul tae keep,
If I should dee before I wake,
I pray th' Lord ma soul tae tak'."
When he had climbed back into bed, Isabella with her candle walked away from the door and the tiny house was still. Harry lay there wondering what it would be like to fall asleep now and not to wake up in the morning. And what was a soul, anyway? And what would the Lord be doing in Musselburgh prowling around in the dark for the soul of wee Harry Lauder?
Years later the millions of people who saw him, applauded him, knew him, flattered and catered to him never suspected that before he went to sleep he never failed to repeat that ageless prayer which had so puzzled him as a boy.
It was some days before Harry succeeded in finding other employment, but he heard at last of a man who needed boys to pick strawberries. The road was dusty and the sun was hot. The man who gazed down at him was tall and stem, with a long face and small, suspicious eyes.
"Weel, whit do ye want?" he barked.
"Hoots, I came tae pick your berries!"
"Hmm. Hoo ould are ye?"
"I'm eight, sir."
"Hmm. Can ye whustle?"
"Can ye whustle?"
Even at that early age Harry was at a loss to understand exactly how being able to whistle was going to mean success as a berry picker, but he was eager to oblige, and promptly began a lusty whistling of Annie Laurie. The big man listened and nodded.
"Weel, take this can an' get in there an' start pickin'. Mind ye keep pickin' an' keep whustlin'!"
The gardener had discovered that boys who whistled could not eat his berries at the same time. There were many boys in the wide field, all of them whistling a different tune. Up and down the numerous long rows the gardener walked, listening. If a boy stopped whistling, it meant that he had started eating. So the boys whistled, and at the end of the day each received fourpence.
Harry's berry-picking experience lasted only two days. At the end of that time he limped home to his mother, his backside again smarting. There were no tears this time. He was learning to take these things philosophically.
The berries had been tempting — luscious-sweet, dusty, hot and juicy. Whistling like that for hours at a time, one's throat got dry. Surely, a fistful of berries popped lightning-swift into one's mouth would be as refreshing as nectar. He withstood the temptation manfully the first day, but the second day he succumbed. Just as he stuffed the fruit into his mouth, the boss popped up, it seemed, from nowhere, caught hold of his collar and yanked him to his feet. The gardener reasoned that the punishment he was about to inflict was justified, for it would serve as an example to the others. So Harry was beaten again while his fellow-workers went on whistling.
Years later, when Harry Lauder was famous, when people were inviting him to luncheons and banquets, they wondered why it was that their guest of honor would never eat strawberries. Why, they said, it seemed as if the very sight of them brought him pain!
Paying jobs for an eight-year-old boy are not the easiest things in the world to find, and to Harry it had become of tremendous importance that he make money. To him, a sixpence seemed a fortune. Poverty was all about him, not only in his own home, but in the "wee but and bens" of his neighbors, something omnipresent, inescapable. This was the ugly kind of poverty which had to scheme for weeks before it could take a pair of boots to be mended at the cobbler's; yet through it all, theirs was a cheerful house, for Isabella had learned to bear poverty with patience and even a certain gallantry, since she never expected to know anything else. She had a family to raise, and she considered it was her duty to raise them to be, not great men and women, not scholarly or rich or famous, but straight and clean and dependable. Imbued in Harry Lauder from babyhood was the creed that a promise must be scrupulously kept, that one must always pay one's debts, and think thrice before one made them; that one must save rigidly; that one must expect to work for what one got — and work hard.
Excerpted from Valiant Minstrel by Gladys Malvern, Corinne Malvern. Copyright © 2013 Gladys Malvern Estate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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