Brander Matthews (1852–1929). The Short-Story. 1907.By Walter Scott
VI Wandering Willies Tale
There was something odd in this speech, and the tone in which it was said. It seemed as if my companion was not always in his constant mind, or that he was willing to try if he could frighten me. I laughed at the extravagance of his language, however, and asked him in reply if he was fool enough to believe that the foul fiend would play so silly a masquerade.
“Ye ken little about it—little about it,” said the old man, shaking his head and beard, and knitting his brows. “I could tell ye something about that.”
What his wife mentioned of his being a tale-teller as well as a musician now occurred to me; and as, you know, I like tales of superstition, I begged to have a specimen of his talent as we went along.
“It is very true,” said the blind man, “that when I am tired of scraping thairm or singing ballants I whiles make a tale serve the turn among the country bodies; and I have some fearsome anes, that make the auld carlines shake on the settle, and the bits o’ bairns skirl on their minnies out frae their beds. But this that I am going to tell you was a thing that befell in our ain house in my father’s time—that is, my father was then a hafflins callant; and I tell it to you, that it may be a lesson to you that are but a young thoughtless chap, wha ye draw up wi’ on a lonely road; for muckle was the dool and care that came o’ ’t to my gudesire.”
He commenced his tale accordingly, in a distinct narrative tone of voice, which he raised and depressed with considerable skill; at times sinking almost into a whisper, and turning his clear but sightless eyeballs upon my face, as if it had been possible for him to witness the impression which his narrative made upon my features. I will not spare a syllable of it, although it be of the longest; so I make a dash—and begin:—
Ye maun have heard of Sir Robert Redgauntlet of that ilk, who lived in these parts before the dear years. The country will lang mind him; and our fathers used to draw breath thick if ever they heard him named. He was out wi’ the Hielandmen in Montrose’s time; and again he was in the hills wi’ Glencairn in the saxteen hundred and fifty-twa; and sae when King Charles the Second came in, wha was in sic favor as the laird of Redgauntlet? He was knighted at Lonon Court, wi’ the king’s ain sword; and being a red-hot prelatist, he came down here, rampauging like a lion, with commissions of lieutenancy (and of lunacy, for what I ken), to put down a’ the Whigs and Covenanters in the country. Wild wark they made of it; for the Whigs were as dour as the Cavaliers were fierce, and it was which should first tire the other. Redgauntlet was aye for the strong hand; and his name is kend as wide in the country as Claver-house’s or Tam Dalyell’s. Glen, nor dargle, nor mountain, nor cave could hide the puir hill-folk when Redgauntlet was out with bugle and bloodhound after them, as if they had been sae mony deer. And, troth, when they fand them, they didna make muckle mair ceremony than a Hielandman wi’ a roebuck. It was just, “Will ye tak’ the test?” If not—“Make ready—present—fire!” and there lay the recusant.
Far and wide was Sir Robert hated and feared. Men thought he had a direct compact with Satan; that he was proof against steel, and that bullets happed aff his buff-coat like hailstanes from a hearth; that he had a mear that would turn a hare on the side of Carrifragauns; and muckle to the same purpose, of whilk mair anon. The best blessing they wared on him was, “Deil scowp wi’ Redgauntlet!” He wasna a bad master to his ain folk, though, and was weel aneugh liked by his tenants; and as for the lackeys and troopers that rade out wi’ him to the persecutions, as the Whigs caa’d those killing-times, they wad hae drunken themsells blind to his health at ony time.
Now you are to ken that my gudesire lived on Redgauntlet’s grund—they ca’ the place Primrose Knowe. We had lived on the grund, and under the Redgauntlets, since the riding days, and lang before. It was a pleasant bit; and I think the air is callerer and fresher there than onywhere else in the country. It’s a’ deserted now; and I sat on the broken doorcheek three days since, and was glad I couldna see the plight the place was in—but that’s a’ wide o’ the mark. There dwelt my gudesire, Steenie Steenson; a rambling, rattling chiel’ he had been in his young days, and could play weel on the pipes; he was famous at “hoopers and girders,” a’ Cumberland couldna touch him at “Jockie Lattin,” and he had the finest finger for the back-lilt between Berwick and Carlisle. The like o’ Steenie wasna the sort that they made Whigs o’. And so he became a Tory, as they ca’ it, which we now ca’ Jacobites, just out of a kind of needcessity, that he might belang to some side or other. He had nae ill-will to the Whig bodies, and liked little to see the blude rin, though, being obliged to follow Sir Robert in hunting and hoisting, watching and warding, he saw muckle mischief, and maybe did some that he couldna avoid.
Now Steenie was a kind of favorite with his master, and kend a’ the folk about the castle, and was often sent for to play the pipes when they were at their merriment. Auld Dougal MacCallum, the butler, that had followed Sir Robert through gude and ill, thick and thin, pool and stream, was specially fond of the pipes, and aye gae my gudesire his gude word wi’ the laird; for Dougal could turn his master round his finger.
Weel, round came the Revolution, and it had like to hae broken the hearts baith of Dougal and his master. But the change was not a’thegether sae great as they feared and other folk thought for. The Whigs made an unco crawing what they wad do with their auld enemies, and in special wi’ Sir Robert Redgauntlet. But there were owermony great folks dipped in the same doings to make a spick-and-span new warld. So Parliament passed it a’ ower easy; and Sir Robert, bating that he was held to hunting foxes instead of Covenanters, remained just the man he was. His revel was as loud, and his hall as weel lighted, as ever it had been, though maybe he lacked the fines of the nonconformists, that used to come to stock his larder and cellar; for it is certain he began to be keener about the rents than his tenants used to find him before, and they behooved to be prompt to the rent day, or else the laird wasna pleased. And he was sic an awsome body that naebody cared to anger him; for the oaths he swore, and the rage that he used to get into, and the looks that he put on made men sometimes think him a devil incarnate.
Weel, my gudesire was nae manager—no that he was a very great misguider—but he hadna the saving gift, and he got twa terms’ rent in arrear. He got the first brash at Whitsunday put ower wi’ fan word and piping; but when Martinmas came there was a summons from the grund officer to come wi’ the rent on a day preceese, or else Steenie behooved to flit. Sair wark he had to get the siller; but he was weel freended, and at last he got the haill scraped thegether—a thousand merks. The maist of it was from a neighbor they caa’d Laurie Lapraik—a sly tod. Laurie had wealth o’ gear, could hunt wi’ the hound and rin wi’ the hare, and be Whig or Tory, saunt or sinner, as the wind stood. He was a professor in this Revolution warld, but he liked an orra sough of this warld, and a tune on the pipes, weel aneugh at a by-time; and, bune a’, he thought he had gude security for the siller he len my gudesire ower the stocking at Primrose Knowe.
Away trots my gudesire to Redgauntlet Castle wi’ a heavy purse and a light heart, glad to be out of the laird’s danger. Weel, the first thing he learned at the castle was that Sir Robert had fretted himsell into a fit of the gout because he did no appear before twelve o’clock. It wasna a’thegether for sake of the money, Dougal thought, but because he didna like to part wi’ my gudesire aff the grund. Dougal was glad to see Steenie, and brought him into the great oak parlor; and there sat the laird his leesome lane, excepting thar he had beside him a great, ill-favored jackanape that was a special pet of his. A cankered beast it was, and mony an ill-natured trick it played; ill to please it was, and easily angered—ran about the haill castle, chattering and rowling, and pinching and biting folk, specially before ill weather, or disturbance in the state. Sir Robert caa’d it Major Weir, after the warlock that was burnt; and few folk liked either the name or the conditions of the creature—they thought there was something in it by ordinar—and my gudesire was not just easy in mind when the door shut on him, and he saw himsell in the room wi’ naebody but the laird, Dougal MacCullum, and the major—a thing that hadna chanced to him before.
Sir Robert sat, or, I should say, lay, in a great armchair, wi’ his grand velvet gown, and his feet on a cradle; for he had baith gout and gravel, and his face looked as gash and ghastly as Satan’s. Major Weir sat opposite to him, in a red-laced coat, and the laird’s wig on his head; and aye as Sir Robert girned wi’ pain, the jackanape girned too, like a sheep’s head between a pair of tangs—an ill-faur’ed, fearsome couple they were. The laird’s buff-coat was hung on a pin behind him, and his broadsword and his pistols within reach; for he keepit up the auld fashion of having the weapons ready, and a horse saddled day and night, just as he used to do when he was able to loup on horseback, and sway after ony of the hill-folk he could get speerings of. Some said it was for fear of the Whigs taking vengence, but I judge it was just his auld custom—he wasna gine not fear onything. The rental book, wi’ its black cover and brass clasps, was lying beside him; and a book of sculduddery sangs was put betwixt the leaves, to keep it open at the place where it bore evidence against the goodman of Primrose Knowe, as behind the hand with his mails and duties. Sir Robert gave my gudesire a look, as if he would have withered his heart in his bosom. Ye maun ken he had a way of bending his brows that men saw the visible mark of a horseshoe in his forehead, deep-dinted, as if it had been stamped there.
“Are ye come light-handed, ye son of a toom whistle?” said Sir Robert. “Zounds! if you are—”
My gudesire, with as gude a countenance as he could put on, made a leg, and placed the bag of money on the table wi’ a dash, like a man that does something clever. The laird drew it to him hastily. “Is all here, Steenie, man?”
“Your honor will find it right,” said my gudesire.
“Here, Dougal,” said the laird, “gie Steenie a tass of brandy, till I count the siller and write the receipt.”
But they werena weel out of the room when Sir Robert gied a yelloch that garr’d the castle rock. Back ran Dougal; in flew the liverymen; yell on yell gied the laird, ilk ane mair awfu’ than the ither. My gudesire knew not whether to stand or flee, but he ventured back into the parlor, where a’ was gaun hirdie-girdie—naebody to say “come in” or “gae out.” Terribly the laird roared for cauld water to his feet, and wine to cool his throat; and “Hell, hell, hell, and its flames,” was aye the word in his mouth. They brought him water, and when they plunged his swoln feet into the tub, he cried out it was burning; and folks say that it did bubble and sparkle like a seething caldron. He flung the cup at Dougal’s head and said he had given him blood instead of Burgundy; and, sure aneugh, the lass washed clotted blood aff the carpet the neist day. The jackanape they caa’d Major Weir, it jibbered and cried as if it was mocking its master. My gudesire’s head was like to turn; he forgot baith siller and receipt, and downstairs he banged; but, as he ran, the shrieks came fainter and fainter; there was a deep-drawn shivering groan, and word gaed through the castle that the laird was dead.
Weel, away came my gudesire wi’ his finger in his mouth, and his best hope was that Dougal had seen the money bag and heard the laird speak of writing the receipt. The young laird, now Sir John, came from Edinburgh to see things put to rights. Sir John and his father never ’greed weel. Sir John had been bred an advocate, and afterward sat in the last Scots Parliament and voted for the Union, having gotten, it was thought, a rug of the compensations—if his father could have come out of his grave he would have brained him for it on his awn hearthstane. Some thought it was easier counting with the auld rough knight than the fair-spoken young ane—but mair of that anon.
Dougal MacCallum, poor body, neither grat nor graned, but gaed about the house looking like a corpse, but directing, as was his duty, a’ the order of the grand funeral. Now Dougal looked aye waur and waur when night was coming, and was aye the last to gang to his bed, whilk was in a little round just opposite the chamber of dais, whilk his master occupied while he was living, and where he now lay in state, as they caa’d it, weeladay! The night before the funeral Dougal could keep his awn counsel nae longer; he came doun wi’ his proud spirit, and fairly asked auld Hutcheon to sit in his room with him for an hour. When they were in the round, Dougal took a tass of brandy to himsell, and gave another to Hutcheon, and wished him all health and lang life, and said that, for himsell, he wasna lang for this world; for that every night since Sir Robert’s death his silver call had sounded from the state chamber just as it used to do at nights in his lifetime to call Dougal to help to turn him in his bed. Dougal said that, being alone with the dead on that floor of the tower (for naebody cared to wake Sir Robert Redgauntlet like another corpse), he had never daured to answer the call, but that now his conscience checked him for neglecting his duty; for, “though death breaks service,” said MacCallum, “it shall never weak my service to Sir Robert; and I will answer his next whistle, so be you will stand by me, Hutcheon.”
Hutcheon had nae will to the wark, but he had stood by Dougal in battle and broil, and he wad not fail him at this pinch; so doun the carles sat ower a stoup of brandy, and Hutcheon, who was something of a clerk, would have read a chapter of the Bible; but Dougal would hear naething but a blaud of Davie Lindsay, whilk was the waur preparation.
When midnight came, and the house was quiet as the grave, sure enough the silver whistle sounded as sharp and shrill as if Sir Robert was blowing it; and up got the twa auld serving men, and tottered into the room where the dead man lay. Hutcheon saw aneugh at the first glance; for there were torches in the room, which showed him the foul fiend, in his ain shape, sitting on the laird’s coffin! Ower he couped as if he had been dead. He could not tell how lang he lay in a trance at the door, but when he gathered himsell he cried on his neighbor, and getting nae answer raised the house, when Dougal was found lying dead within twa steps of the bed where his master’s coffin was placed. As for the whistle, it was gane anes and aye; but mony a time was it heard at the top of the house on the bartizan, and amang the auld chimneys and turrets where the howlets have their nests. Sir John hushed the matter up, and the funeral passed over without mair bogie wark.
But when a’ was ower, and the laird was beginning to settle his affairs, every tenant was called up for his arrears, and my gudesire for the full sum that stood against him in the rental book. Weel, away he trots to the castle to tell his story, and there he is introduced to Sir John, sitting in his father’s chair, in deep mourning, with weepers and hanging cravat, and a small walking rapier by his side, instead of the auld broadsword that had a hunderweight of steel about it, what with blade, chape, and basket hilt. I have heard their communings so often tauld ower that I almost think I was there mysell, though I couldna be born at the time. (In fact, Alan, my companion, mimicked, with a good deal of humor, the flattering, conciliating tone of the tenant’s address and the hypocritical melancholy of the laird’s reply. His grandfather, he said, had, while he spoke, his eye fixed on the rental book, as if it were a mastiff dog that he was afraid would spring up and bite him.)
“I wuss ye joy, sir, of the head seat and the white loaf and the brid lairdship. Your father was a kind man to freends and followers; muckle grace to you, Sir John, to fill his shoon—his boots, I suld say, for he seldom wore shoon, unless it were muils when he had the gout.
“Aye, Steenie,” quoth the laird, sighing deeply, and putting his napkin to his een, “his was a sudden call, and he will be missed in the country; no time to set his house in order—weel prepared Godward, no doubt, which is the root of the matter; but left us behind a tangled hesp to wind, Steenie. Hem! hem! We maun go to business, Steenie; much to do, and little time to do it in.”
Here he opened the fatal volume. I have heard of a thing they call Doomsday-book—I am clear it has been a rental of back-ganging tenants.
“Stephen,” said Sir John, still in the same soft, sleekit tone of voice—“Stephen Stephenson, or Steenson, ye are down here for a year’s rent behind the hand—due at last term.”
Stephen. Please your honor, Sir John, I paid it to your father.
Sir John. Ye took a receipt, then, doubtless, Stephen, and can produce it?
Stephen. Indeed, I hadna time, and it like your honor; for nae sooner had I set doun the siller, and just as his honor, Sir Robert, that’s gaen, drew it till him to count it and write out the receipt, he was ta’en wi’ the pains that removed him.
“That was unlucky,” said Sir John, after a pause. “But ye maybe paid it in the presence of somebody. I want but a talis qualis evidence, Stephen. I would go ower-strictly to work with no poor man.”
Stephen. Troth, Sir John, there was naebody in the room but Dougal MacCallum, the butler. But, as your honor kens, he has e’en followed his auld master.
“Very unlucky again, Stephen,” said Sir John, without altering his voice a single note. “The man to whom ye paid the money is dead, and the man who witnessed the payment is dead, too; and the siller, which should have been to the fore, is neither seen nor heard tell of in the repositories. How am I to believe a’ this?”
Stephen. I dinna ken, your honor; but there is a bit memorandum note of the very coins, for, God help me! I had to borrow out of twenty purses; and I am sure that ilka man there set down will take his grit oath for what purpose I borrowed the money.
Sir John. I have little doubt ye borrowed the money, Steenie. It is the payment that I want to have proof of.
Stephen. The siller maun be about the house, Sir John. And since your honor never got it, and his honor that was canna have ta’en it wi’ him, maybe some of the family may hae seen it.
Sir John. We will examine the servants, Stephen; that is but reasonable.
But lackey and lass, and page and groom, all denied stoutly that they had ever seen such a bag of money as my gudesire described. What saw waur, he had unluckily not mentioned to any living soul of them his purpose of paying his rent. Ae quean had noticed something under his arm, but she took it for the pipes.
Sir John Redgauntlet ordered the servants out of the room, and then said to my gudesire: “Now, Steenie, ye see ye have fair play; and, as I have little doubt ye ken better where to find the siller than ony other body, I beg in fair terms, and for your own sake, that you will end this fasherie; for, Stephen, ye maun pay or flit.”
“The Lord forgie your opinion,” said Stephen, driven almost to his wit’s end—“I am an honest man.”
“So am I, Stephen,” said his honor; “and so are all the folks in this house, I hope. But if there be a knave among us, it must be he that tells the story he cannot prove.” He paused, and then added, mair sternly: “If I understand your trick, sir, you want to take advantage of some malicious reports concerning things in this family, and particularly respecting my father’s sudden death, thereby to cheat me out of the money, and perhaps take away my character by insinuating that I have received the rent I am demanding. Where do you suppose this money to be? I insist upon knowing.”
My gudesire saw everything look so muckle against him that he grew nearly desperate. However, he shifted from one foot to another, looked to every corner of the room, and made no answer.
“Speak out, sirrah,” said the laird, assuming a look of his father’s, a very particular ane, which he had when he was angry—it seemed as if the wrinkles of his frown made that selfsame fearful shape of a horse’s shoe in the middle of his brow; “speak out, sir! I will know your thoughts; do you suppose that I have this money?”
“Far be it frae me to say so,” said Stephen.
“Do you charge any of my people with having taken it?”
“I wad be laith to charge them that may be innocent,” said my gudesire; “and if there be any one that is guilty, I have nae proof.”
“Somewhere the money must be, if there is a word of truth in your story,” said Sir John; “I ask where you think it is—and demand a correct answer!”
“In hell, if you will have my thoughts of it,” said my gudesire, driven to extremity—“in hell! with your father, his jackanape, and his silver whistle.”
Down the stairs he ran (for the parlor was nae place for him after such a word) and he heard the laird swearing blood and wounds behind him, as fast as ever did Sir Robert, and roaring for the bailie and the baron-officer.
Away rode my gudesire to his chief creditor (him they caa’d Laurie Lapraik), to try if he could make onything out of him; but when he tauld his story, he got but the worst word in his wame—thief, beggar, and dyvour were the saftest terms; and to the boot of these hard terms, Laurie brought up the auld story of dipping his hand in the blood of God’s saunts, just as if a tenant could have helped riding with the laird, and that a laird like Sir Robert Redgauntlet. My gudesire was, by this time, far beyond the bounds of patience, and, while he and Laurie were at deil speed the liars, he was wanchancie aneugh to abuse Lapraik’s doctrine as weel as the man, and said things that garr’d folks’ flesh grue that heard them—he wasna just himsell, and he had lived wi’ a wild set in his day.
At last they parted, and my gudesire was to ride hame through the wood of Pitmurkie, that is a’ fou of black firs, as they say. I ken the wood, but the firs may be black or white for what I can tell. At the entry of the wood there is a wild common, and on the edge of the common a little lonely change house, that was keepit then by an hostler wife—they suld hae caa’d her Tibbie Faw—and there puir Steenie cried for a mutchkin of brandy, for he had had no refreshment the haill day. Tibbie was earnest wi’ him to take a bite of meat, but he couldna think o’ ’t, nor would he take his foot out of the stirrup, and took off the brandy wholely at twa draughts, and named a toast at each. The first was, the memory of Sir Robert Redgauntlet, and may he never lie quiet in his grave till he had righted his poor bond tenant; and the second was, a health to Man’s Enemy, if he would but get him back the pock of siller, or tell him what came o’ ’t, for he saw the haill world was like to regard him as a thief and a cheat, and he took that waur than even the ruin of his house and hauld.
On he rode, little caring where. It was a dark night turned, and the trees made it yet darker, and he let the beast take its ain road through the wood; when all of a sudden, from tired and wearied that it was before, the nag began to spring and flee and stend, that my gudesire could hardly keep the saddle. Upon the whilk, a horseman, suddenly riding up beside him, said, “That’s a mettle beast of yours, freend; will you sell him?” So saying, he touched the horse’s neck with his riding wand, and it fell into its auld heigh-ho of a stumbling trot. “But his spunk’s soon out of him, I think,” continued the stranger, “and that is like mony a man’s courage, that thinks he wad do great things.”
My gudesire scarce listened to this, but spurred his horse, with “Gude-e’en to you, freend.”
But it’s like the stranger was ane that doesna lightly yield his point; for, ride as Steenie liked, he was aye beside him at the selfsame pace. At last my gudesire, Steenie Steenson, grew half angry, and, to say the truth, half feard.
“What is it that you want with me, freend?” he said. “If ye be a robber, I have nae money; if ye be a leal man, wanting company, I have nae heart to mirth or speaking; and if ye want to ken the road, I scarce ken it mysell.”
“If you will tell me your grief,” said the stranger, “I am one that, though I have been sair miscaa’d in the world, am the only hand for helping my freends.”
So my gudesire, to ease his ain heart, mair than from any hope of help, told him the story from beginning to end.
“It’s a hard pinch,” said the stranger; “but I think I can help you.”
“If you could lend the money, sir, and take a lang day—I ken nae other help on earth,” said my gudesire.
“But there may be some under the earth,” said the stranger. “Come, I’ll be frank wi’ you; I could lend you the money on bond, but you would maybe scruple my terms. Now I can tell you that your auld laird is disturbed in his grave by your curses and the wailing of your family, and if ye daur venture to go to see him, he will give you the receipt.”
My gudesire’s hair stood on end at this proposal, but he thought his companion might be some humorsome chield that was trying to frighten him, and might end with lending him the money. Besides, he was bauld wi’ brandy, and desperate wi’ distress; and he said he had courage to go to the gate of hell, and a step farther, for that receipt. The stranger laughed.
Weel, they rode on through the thickest of the wood, when, all of a sudden, the horse stopped at the door of a great house; and, but that he knew the place was ten miles off, my father would have thought he was at Redgauntlet Castle. They rode into the outer courtyard, through the muckle faulding yetts, and aneath the auld portcullis; and the whole front of the house was lighted, and there were pipes and fiddles, and as much dancing and deray within as used to be at Sir Robert’s house at Pace and Yule, and such high seasons. They lap off, and my gudesire, as seemed to him, fastened his horse to the very ring he had tied him to that morning when he gaed to wait on the young Sir John.
“God!” said my gudesire, “if Sir Robert’s death be but a dream!”
He knocked at the ha’ door just as he was wont, and his auld acquaintance, Dougal MacCallum—just after his wont, too—came to open the door, and said, “Piper Steenie, are ye there, lad? Sir Robert has been crying for you.”
My gudesire was like a man in a dream—he looked for the stranger, but he was gane for the time. At last he just tried to say: “Ha! Dougal Driveower, are you living? I thought ye had been dead.”
“Never fash yoursell wi’ me,” said Dougal, “but look to yoursell; and see ye tak’ naething frae onybody here, neither meat, drink, or siller, except the receipt that is your ain.”
So saying, he led the way out through halls and trances that were weel kend to my gudesire, and into the auld oak parlor; and there was as much singing of profane sangs, and birling of red wine, and blasphemy sculduddery as had ever been in Redgauntlet Castle when it was at the blythest.
But Lord take us in keeping! what a set of ghastly revelers there were that sat around that table! My gudesire kend mony that had long before gane to their place, for often had he piped to the most part in the hall of Redgauntlet. There was the fierce Middleton, and the dissolute Rothes, and the crafty Lauderdale; and Dalyell, with his bald head and a beard to his girdle; and Earlshall, with Cameron’s blude on his hand; and wild Bonshaw, that tied blessed Mr. Cargill’s limbs till the blude sprung; and Dumbarton Douglas, the twice-turned traitor baith to country and king. There was the Bludy Advocate MacKenzie, who, for his worldly wit and wisdom, had been to the rest as a god. And there was Claverhouse, as beautiful as when he lived, with his long, dark, curled locks streaming down over his laced buff-coat, and with his left hand always on his right spule-blade, to hide the wound that the silver bullet had made. He sat apart from them all, and looked at them with a melancholy, haughty countenance; while the rest hallooed and sang and laughed, and the room rang. But their smiles were fearfully contorted from time to time; and their laughter passed into such wild sounds as made my gudesire’s very nails grow blue, and chilled the marrow in his banes.
They that waited at the table were just the wicked serving men and troopers that had done their work and cruel bidding on earth. There was the Lang Lad of the Nethertown, that helped to take Argyle; and the bishop’s summoner, that they called the Deil’s Rattlebag; and the wicked guardsmen in their laced coats; and the savage Highland Amorites, that shed blood like water; and mony a proud serving man, haughty of heart and bloody of hand, cringing to the rich, and making them wickeder than they would be; grinding the poor to powder when the rich had broken them to fragments. And mony, mony mair were coming and ganging, a’ as busy in their vocation as if they had been alive.
Sir Robert Redgauntlet, in the midst of a’ this fearful riot, cried, wi’ a voice like thunder, on Steenie Piper to come to the board-head where he was sitting, his legs stretched out before him, and swathed up with flannel, with his holster pistols aside him, while the great broadsword rested against his chair, just as my gudesire had seen him the last time upon earth; the very cushion for the jackanape was close to him; but the creature itsell was not there—it wasna its hour, it’s likely; for he heard them say, as he came forward, “Is not the major come yet?” And another answered, “The jackanape will be here betimes the morn.” And when my gudesire came forward, Sir Robert, or his ghaist, or the deevil in his likeness, said, “Weel, piper, hae ye settled wi’ my son for the year’s rent?”
With much ado my father gat breath to say that Sir John would not settle without his honor’s receipt.
“Ye shall hae that for a tune of the pipes, Steenie,” said the appearance of Sir Robert—“play us up Weel Hoddled, Luckie.”
Now this was a tune my gudesire learned frae a warlock, that heard it when they were worshiping Satan at their meetings; and my gudesire had sometimes played it at the ranting suppers in Redgauntlet Castle, but never very willingly; and now he grew cauld at the very name of it, and said, for excuse, he hadna his pipes wi’ him.
“MacCallum, ye limb of Beelzebub,” said the fearfu’ Sir Robert, “bring Steenie the pipes that I am keeping for him!”
MacCallum brought a pair of pipes might have served the piper of Donald of the Isles. But he gave my gudesire a nudge as he offered them; and looking secretly and closely, Steenie saw that the chanter was of steel, and heated to a white heat; so he had fair warning not to trust his fingers with it. So he excused himsell again, and said he was faint and frightened, and had not wind aneugh to fill the bag.
“Then ye maun eat and drink, Steenie,” said the figure; “for we do little else here; and it’s ill speaking between a fou man and a fasting.” Now these were the very words that the bloody Earl of Douglas said to keep the king’s messenger in hand while he cut the head off MacLellan of Bombie, at the Threave Castle; and that put Steenie mair and mair on his guard. So he spoke up like a man, and said he came neither to eat nor drink, nor make minstrelsy; but simply for his ain—to ken what was come o’ the money he had paid, and to get a discharge for it; and he was so stout-hearted by this time that he charged Sir Robert for conscience’ sake (he had no power to say the holy name), and as he hoped for peace and rest, to spread no snares for him, but just to give him his ain.
The appearance gnashed its teeth and laughed, but it took from a large pocket-book the receipt, and handed it to Steenie. “There is your receipt, ye pitiful cur; and for the money, my dog-whelp of a son may go look for it in the Cat’s Cradle.”
My gudesire uttered mony thanks, and was about to retire, when Sir Robert roared aloud: “Stop, though, thou sack-doudling son of a—! I am not done with thee. H
My father’s tongue was loosed of a suddenty, and he said aloud, “I refer myself to God’s pleasure, and not to yours.”
He had no sooner uttered the word than all was dark around him; and he sank on the earth with such a sudden shock that he lost both breath and sense.
How lang Steenie lay there he could not tell; but when he came to himsell he was lying in the auld kirkyard of Redgauntlet parochine, just at the door of the family aisle, and the scutcheon of the auld knight, Sir Robert, hanging over his head. There was a deep morning fog on grass and gravestane around him, and his horse was feeding quietly beside the ministers twa cows. Steenie would have thought the whole was a dream, but he had the receipt in his hand fairly written and signed by the auld laird; only the last letters of his name were a little disorderly, written like one seized with sudden pain.
Sorely troubled in his mind, he left that dreary place, rode through the mist to Redgauntlet Castle, and with much ado he got speech of the laird.
“Well, you dyvour bankrupt,” was the first word, “have you brought me my rent?”
“No,” answered my gudesire, “I have not; but I have brought your honor Sir Robert’s receipt for it.”
“How, sirrah? Sir Robert’s receipt! You told me he had not given you one.”
“Will your honor please to see if that bit line is right?”
Sir John looked at every line, and at every letter, with much attention; and at last at the date, which my gudesire had not observed—“From my appointed place,” he read, “this twenty-fifth of November.”
“What! That is yesterday! Villain, thou must have gone to hell for this!”
“I got it from your honor’s father; whether he be in heaven or hell, I know not,” said Steenie.
“I will debate you for a warlock to the Privy Council!” said Sir John. “I will send you to your master, the devil, with the help of a tar barrel and a torch!”
“I intend to debate mysell to the Presbytery,” said Steenie, “and tell them all I have seen last night, whilk are things fitter for them to judge of than a borrel man like me.”
Sir John paused, composed himsell, and desired to hear the full history; and my gudesire told it him from point to point, as I have told it you—neither more nor less.
Sir John was silent again for a long time, and at last he said, very composedly: “Steenie, this story of yours concerns the honor of many a noble family besides mine; and if it be a leasing-making, to keep yoursell out of my danger, the least you can expect is to have a red-hot iron driven through your tongue, and that will be as bad as scaulding your fingers wi’ a red-hot chanter. But yet it may be true, Steenie; and if the money cast up, I shall not know what to think of it. But where shall we find the Cat’s Cradle? There are cats enough about the old house, but I think they kitten without the ceremony of bed or cradle.”
“We were best ask Hutcheon,” said my gudesire; “he kens a’ the odd corners about as weel as—another serving man that is now gane, and that I wad not like to name.”
Aweel, Hutcheon, when he was asked, told them that a ruinous turret lang disused, next to the clock house, only accessible by a ladder, for the opening was on the outside, above the battlements, was called of old the Cat’s Cradle.
“There will I go immediately,” said Sir John; and he took—with what purpose Heaven kens—one of his father’s pistols from the hall table, where they had lain since the night he died, and hastened to the battlements.
It was a dangerous place to climb, for the ladder was auld and frail, and wanted ane or twa rounds. However, up got Sir John, and entered at the turret door, where his body stopped the only little light that was in the bit turret. Something flees at him wi’ a vengeance, maist dang him back ower—bang! gaed the knight’s pistol, and Hutcheon, that held the ladder, and my gudesire, that stood beside him, hears a loud skelloch. A minute after, Sir John flings the body of the jackanape down to them, and cries that the siller is fund, and that they should come up and help him. And there was the bag of siller sure aneugh, and mony orra thing besides, that had been missing for mony a day. And Sir John, when he had riped the turret weel, led my gudesire into the dining-parlor, and took him by the hand, and spoke kindly to him, and said he was sorry he should have doubted his word, and that he would hereafter be a good master to him, to make amends.
“And now, Steenie,” said Sir John, “although this vision of yours tends, on the whole, to my father’s credit as an honest man, that he should, even after his death, desire to see justice done to a poor man like you, yet you are sensible that ill-dispositioned men might make bad constructions upon it concerning his soul’s health. So, I think, we had better lay the haill dirdum on that ill-deedie creature, Major Weir, and say naething about your dream in the wood of Pitmurkie. You had taen ower-muckle brandy to be very certain about onything; and, Steenie, this receipt”—his hand shook while he held it out—“it’s but a queer kind of document, and we will do best, I think, to put it quietly in the fire.”
“Od, but for as queer as it is, it’s a’ the voucher I have for my rent,” said my gudesire, who was afraid, it may be, of losing the benefit of Sir Robert’s discharge.
“I will bear the contents to your credit in the rental book, and give you a discharge under my own hand,” said Sir John, “and that on the spot. And, Steenie, if you can hold your tongue about this matter, you shall sit, from this time downward, at an easier rent.”
“Mony thanks to your honor,” said Steenie, who saw easily in what corner the wind was; “doubtless I will be conformable to all your honor’s commands; only I would willingly speak wi’ some powerful minister on the subject, for I do not like the sort of soumons of appointment whilk your honor’s father—”
“Do not call the phantom my father!” said Sir John, interrupting him.
“Well, then, the thing that was so like him,” said my gudesire; “he spoke of my coming back to see him this time twelvemonth, and it’s a weight on my conscience.”
“Aweel, then,” said Sir John, “if you be so much distressed in mind, you may speak to our minister of the parish; he is a douce man, regards the honor of our family, and the mair that he may look for some patronage from me.”
Wi’ that, my father readily agreed that the receipt should be burned; and the laird threw it into the chimney with his ain hand. Burn it would not for them, though; but away it flew up the lum, wi’ a lang train of sparks at its tail, and a hissing noise like a squib.
My gudesire gaed down to the manse, and the minister, when he had heard the story, said it was his real opinion that, though my gudesire had gane very far in tampering with dangerous matters, yet as he had refused the devil’s arles (for such was the offer of meat and drink), and had refused to do homage by piping at his bidding, he hoped that, if he held a circumspect walk hereafter, Satan could take little advantage by what was come and gane. And, indeed, my gudesire, of his ain accord, lang forswore baith the pipes and the brandy—it was not even till the year was out, and the fatal day past, that he would so much as take the fiddle or drink usquebaugh or tippenny.
Sir John made up his story about the jackanape as he liked himsell; and some believe till this day there was no more in the matter than the filching nature of the brute. Indeed, ye’ll no hinder some to thread that it was nane o’ the auld Enemy that Dougal and Hutcheon saw in the laird’s room, but only that wanchancie creature the major, capering on the coffin; and that, as to the blawing on the laird’s whistle that was heard after he was dead, the filthy brute could do that as weel as the laird himsell, if not better. But Heaven kens the truth, whilk first came out by the minister’s wife, after Sir John and her ain gudeman were baith in the molds. And then my gudesire, wha was failed in his limbs, but not in his judgment or memory—at least nothing to speak of—was obliged to tell the real narrative to his freends, for the credit of his good name. He might else have been charged for a warlock.
The shades of evening were growing thicker around us as my conductor finished his long narrative with this moral: “You see, birkie, it is nae chancy thing to tak’ a stranger traveler for a guide when you are in an uncouth land.”
“I should not have made that inference,” said I. “Your grandfather’s adventure was fortunate for himself, whom it saved from ruin and distress; and fortunate for his landlord.”
“Aye, but they had baith to sup the sauce o’ ’t sooner or later,” said Wandering Willie; “what was fristed wasna forgiven. Sir John died before he was much over threescore; and it was just like of a moment’s illness. And for my gudesire, though he departed in fullness of life, yet there was my father, a yauld man of forty-five, fell down betwixt the stilts of his plow, and rase never again, and left nae bairn but me, a puir, sightless, fatherless, motherless creature, could neither work nor want. Things gaed weel aneugh at first; for Sir Regwald Redgauntlet, the only son of Sir John and the oye of auld Sir Robert, and, wae ’s me! the last of the honorable house, took the farm aff our hands, and brought me into his household to have care of me. My head never settled since I lost him; and if I say another word about it, deil a bar will I have the heart to play the night. Look out, my gentle chap,” he resumed, in a different tone; “ye should see the lights at Brokenburn Glen by this time.”