Francie was eleven years old, shy, secret, and rather childish of his age, though not backward in schooling, which had been pushed on far by a private governor, one M’Brair, a forfeited minister harboured in that capacity at Montroymont. The boy, already much employed in secret by his mother, was the most apt hand conceivable to run upon a message, to carry food to lurking fugitives, or to stand sentry on the skyline above a conventicle. It seemed no place on the moorlands was so naked but what he would find cover there; and as he knew every hag, boulder, and heather-bush in a circuit of seven miles about Montroymont, there was scarce any spot but what he could leave or approach it unseen. This dexterity had won him a reputation in that part of the country; and among the many children employed in these dangerous affairs, he passed under the by-name of Heathercat.
How much his father knew of this employment might be doubted. He took much forethought for the boy’s future, seeing he was like to be left so poorly, and would sometimes assist at his lessons, sighing heavily, yawning deep, and now and again patting Francie on the shoulder if he seemed to be doing ill, by way of a private, kind encouragement. But a great part of the day was passed in aimless wanderings with his eyes sealed, or in his cabinet sitting bemused over the particulars of the coming bankruptcy; and the boy would be absent a dozen times for once that his father would observe it.
On 2nd of July 1682 the boy had an errand from his mother, which must be kept private from all, the father included in the first of them. Crossing the braes, he hears the clatter of a horse’s shoes, and claps down incontinent in a hag by the wayside. And presently he spied his father come riding from one direction, and Curate Haddo walking from another; and Montroymont leaning down from the saddle, and Haddo getting on his toes (for he was a little, ruddy, bald-pated man, more like a dwarf), they greeted kindly, and came to a halt within two fathoms of the child.
‘Montroymont,’ the curate said, ‘the deil’s in ‘t but I’ll have to denunciate your leddy again.’
‘Deil’s in ‘t indeed!’ says the laird.
‘Man! can ye no induce her to come to the kirk?’ pursues Haddo; ‘or to a communion at the least of it? For the conventicles, let be! and the same for yon solemn fule, M’Brair: I can blink at them. But she’s got to come to the kirk, Montroymont.’
‘Dinna speak of it,’ says the laird. ‘I can do nothing with her.’
‘Couldn’t ye try the stick to her? it works wonders whiles,’ suggested Haddo. ‘No? I’m wae to hear it. And I suppose ye ken where you’re going?’
‘Fine!’ said Montroymont. ‘Fine do I ken where: bankrup’cy and the Bass Rock!’
‘Praise to my bones that I never married!’ cried the curate. ‘Well, it’s a grievous thing to me to see an auld house dung down that was here before Flodden Field. But naebody can say it was with my wish.’
‘No more they can, Haddo!’ says the laird. ‘A good friend ye’ve been to me, first and last. I can give you that character with a clear conscience.’
Whereupon they separated, and Montroymont rode briskly down into the Dule Valley. But of the curate Francis was not to be quit so easily. He went on with his little, brisk steps to the corner of a dyke, and stopped and whistled and waved upon a lassie that was herding cattle there. This Janet M’Clour was a big lass, being taller than the curate; and what made her look the more so, she was kilted very high. It seemed for a while she would not come, and Francie heard her calling Haddo a ‘daft auld fule,’ and saw her running and dodging him among the whins and hags till he was fairly blown. But at the last he gets a bottle from his plaid-neuk and holds it up to her; whereupon she came at once into a composition, and the pair sat, drinking of the bottle, and daffing and laughing together, on a mound of heather. The boy had scarce heard of these vanities, or he might have been minded of a nymph and satyr, if anybody could have taken long-leggit Janet for a nymph. But they seemed to be huge friends, he thought; and was the more surprised, when the curate had taken his leave, to see the lassie fling stones after him with screeches of laughter, and Haddo turn about and caper, and shake his staff at her, and laugh louder than herself. A wonderful merry pair, they seemed; and when Francie had crawled out of the hag, he had a great deal to consider in his mind. It was possible they were all fallen in error about Mr. Haddo, he reflected — having seen him so tender with Montroymont, and so kind and playful with the lass Janet; and he had a temptation to go out of his road and question her herself upon the matter. But he had a strong spirit of duty on him; and plodded on instead over the braes till he came near the House of Cairngorm. There, in a hollow place by the burnside that was shaded by some birks, he was aware of a barefoot boy, perhaps a matter of three years older than himself. The two approached with the precautions of a pair of strange dogs, looking at each other queerly.
‘It’s ill weather on the hills,’ said the stranger, giving the watchword.
‘For a season,’ said Francie, ‘but the Lord will appear.’
‘Richt,’ said the barefoot boy; ‘wha’re ye frae?’
‘The Leddy Montroymont,’ says Francie.
‘Ha’e, then!’ says the stranger, and handed him a folded paper, and they stood and looked at each other again. ‘It’s unco het,’ said the boy.
‘Dooms het,’ says Francie.
‘What do they ca’ ye?’ says the other.
‘Francie,’ says he. ‘I’m young Montroymont. They ca’ me Heathercat.’
‘I’m Jock Crozer,’ said the boy. And there was another pause, while each rolled a stone under his foot.
‘Cast your jaiket and I’ll fecht ye for a bawbee,’ cried the elder boy with sudden violence, and dramatically throwing back his jacket.
‘Na, I’ve nae time the now,’ said Francie, with a sharp thrill of alarm, because Crozer was much the heavier boy.
‘Ye’re feared. Heathercat indeed!’ said Crozer, for among this infantile army of spies and messengers, the fame of Crozer had gone forth and was resented by his rivals. And with that they separated.
On his way home Francie was a good deal occupied with the recollection of this untoward incident. The challenge had been fairly offered and basely refused: the tale would be carried all over the country, and the lustre of the name of Heathercat be dimmed. But the scene between Curate Haddo and Janet M’Clour had also given him much to think of: and he was still puzzling over the case of the curate, and why such ill words were said of him, and why, if he were so merry-spirited, he should yet preach so dry, when coming over a knowe, whom should he see but Janet, sitting with her back to him, minding her cattle! He was always a great child for secret, stealthy ways, having been employed by his mother on errands when the same was necessary; and he came behind the lass without her hearing.
‘Jennet,’ says he.
‘Keep me,’ cries Janet, springing up. ‘O, it’s you, Maister Francie! Save us, what a fricht ye gied me.’
‘Ay, it’s me,’ said Francie. ‘I’ve been thinking, Jennet; I saw you and the curate a while back—’
‘Brat!’ cried Janet, and coloured up crimson; and the one moment made as if she would have stricken him with a ragged stick she had to chase her bestial with, and the next was begging and praying that he would mention it to none. It was ‘naebody’s business, whatever,’ she said; ‘it would just start a clash in the country’; and there would be nothing left for her but to drown herself in Dule Water.
‘Why?’ says Francie.
The girl looked at him and grew scarlet again.
‘And it isna that, anyway,’ continued Francie. ‘It was just that he seemed so good to ye — like our Father in heaven, I thought; and I thought that mebbe, perhaps, we had all been wrong about him from the first. But I’ll have to tell Mr. M’Brair; I’m under a kind of a bargain to him to tell him all.’
‘Tell it to the divil if ye like for me!’ cried the lass. ‘I’ve naething to be ashamed of. Tell M’Brair to mind his ain affairs,’ she cried again: ‘they’ll be hot eneugh for him, if Haddie likes!’ And so strode off, shoving her beasts before her, and ever and again looking back and crying angry words to the boy, where he stood mystified.
By the time he had got home his mind was made up that he would say nothing to his mother. My Lady Montroymont was in the keeping-room, reading a godly book; she was a wonderful frail little wife to make so much noise in the world and be able to steer about that patient sheep her husband; her eyes were like sloes, the fingers of her hands were like tobacco-pipe shanks, her mouth shut tight like a trap; and even when she was the most serious, and still more when she was angry, there hung about her face the terrifying semblance of a smile.
‘Have ye gotten the billet, Francie said she; and when he had handed it over, and she had read and burned it, ‘Did you see anybody?’ she asked.
‘I saw the laird,’ said Francie.
‘He didna see you, though?’ asked his mother.
‘Deil a fear,’ from Francie.
‘Francie!’ she cried. ‘What’s that I hear? an aith? The Lord forgive me, have I broughten forth a brand for the burning, a fagot for hell-fire?’
‘I’m very sorry, ma’am,’ said Francie. ‘I humbly beg the Lord’s pardon, and yours, for my wickedness.’
‘H’m,’ grunted the lady. ‘Did ye see nobody else?’
‘No, ma’am,’ said Francie, with the face of an angel, ‘except Jock Crozer, that gied me the billet.’
‘Jock Crozer!’ cried the lady. ‘I’ll Crozer them! Crozers indeed! What next? Are we to repose the lives of a suffering remnant in Crozers? The whole clan of them wants hanging, and if I had my way of it, they wouldna want it long. Are you aware, sir, that these Crozers killed your forebear at the kirk-door?’
‘You see, he was bigger ‘n me,’ said Francie.
‘Jock Crozer!’ continued the lady. ‘That’ll be Clement’s son, the biggest thief and reiver in the country-side. To trust a note to him! But I’ll give the benefit of my opinions to Lady Whitecross when we two forgather. Let her look to herself! I have no patience with half-hearted carlines, that complies on the Lord’s day morning with the kirk, and comes taigling the same night to the conventicle. The one or the other! is what I say: hell or heaven — Haddie’s abominations or the pure word of God dreeping from the lips of Mr. Arnot,
‘“Like honey from the honeycomb
That dreepeth, sweeter far.”’
My lady was now fairly launched, and that upon two congenial subjects: the deficiencies of the Lady Whitecross and the turpitudes of the whole Crozer race — which, indeed, had never been conspicuous for respectability. She pursued the pair of them for twenty minutes on the clock with wonderful animation and detail, something of the pulpit manner, and the spirit of one possessed. ‘O hellish compliance!’ she exclaimed. ‘I would not suffer a complier to break bread with Christian folk. Of all the sins of this day there is not one so God-defying, so Christ-humiliating, as damnable compliance’: the boy standing before her meanwhile, and brokenly pursuing other thoughts, mainly of Haddo and Janet, and Jock Crozer stripping off his jacket. And yet, with all his distraction, it might be argued that he heard too much: his father and himself being ‘compliers’ — that is to say, attending the church of the parish as the law required.
Presently, the lady’s passion beginning to decline, or her flux of ill words to be exhausted, she dismissed her audience. Francie bowed low, left the room, closed the door behind him: and then turned him about in the passage-way, and with a low voice, but a prodigious deal of sentiment, repeated the name of the evil one twenty times over, to the end of which, for the greater efficacy, he tacked on ‘damnable’ and ‘hellish.’ Fas est ab hoste doceri — disrespect is made more pungent by quotation; and there is no doubt but he felt relieved, and went upstairs into his tutor’s chamber with a quiet mind. M’Brair sat by the cheek of the peat-fire and shivered, for he had a quartan ague and this was his day. The great night-cap and plaid, the dark unshaven cheeks of the man, and the white, thin hands that held the plaid about his chittering body, made a sorrowful picture. But Francie knew and loved him; came straight in, nestled close to the refugee, and told his story. M’Brair had been at the College with Haddo; the Presbytery had licensed both on the same day; and at this tale, told with so much innocency by the boy, the heart of the tutor was commoved.
‘Woe upon him! Woe upon that man!’ he cried. ‘O the unfaithful shepherd! O the hireling and apostate minister! Make my matters hot for me? quo’ she! the shameless limmer! And true it is, that he could repose me in that nasty, stinking hole, the Canongate Tolbooth, from which your mother drew me out — the Lord reward her for it! — or to that cold, unbieldy, marine place of the Bass Rock, which, with my delicate kist, would be fair ruin to me. But I will be valiant in my Master’s service. I have a duty here: a duty to my God, to myself, and to Haddo: in His strength, I will perform it.’
Then he straitly discharged Francie to repeat the tale, and bade him in the future to avert his very eyes from the doings of the curate. ‘You must go to his place of idolatry; look upon him there!’ says he, ‘but nowhere else. Avert your eyes, close your ears, pass him by like a three days’ corp. He is like that damnable monster Basiliscus, which defiles — yea, poisons! — by the sight.’ — All which was hardly claratory to the boy’s mind.
Presently Montroymont came home, and called up the stairs to Francie. Traquair was a good shot and swordsman: and it was his pleasure to walk with his son over the braes of the moorfowl, or to teach him arms in the back court, when they made a mighty comely pair, the child being so lean, and light, and active, and the laird himself a man of a manly, pretty stature, his hair (the periwig being laid aside) showing already white with many anxieties, and his face of an even, flaccid red. But this day Francie’s heart was not in the fencing.
‘Sir,’ says he, suddenly lowering his point, ‘will ye tell me a thing if I was to ask it?’
‘Ask away,’ says the father.
‘Well, it’s this,’ said Francie: ‘Why do you and me comply if it’s so wicked?’
‘Ay, ye have the cant of it too!’ cries Montroymont. ‘But I’ll tell ye for all that. It’s to try and see if we can keep the rigging on this house, Francie. If she had her way, we would be beggar-folk, and hold our hands out by the wayside. When ye hear her — when ye hear folk,’ he corrected himself briskly, ‘call me a coward, and one that betrayed the Lord, and I kenna what else, just mind it was to keep a bed to ye to sleep in and a bite for ye to eat. — On guard!’ he cried, and the lesson proceeded again till they were called to supper.
‘There’s another thing yet,’ said Francie, stopping his father. ‘There’s another thing that I am not sure that I am very caring for. She — she sends me errands.’
‘Obey her, then, as is your bounden duty,’ said Traquair.
‘Ay, but wait till I tell ye,’ says the boy. ‘If I was to see you I was to hide.’
Montroymont sighed. ‘Well, and that’s good of her too,’ said he. ‘The less that I ken of thir doings the better for me; and the best thing you can do is just to obey her, and see and be a good son to her, the same as ye are to me, Francie.’
At the tenderness of this expression the heart of Francie swelled within his bosom, and his remorse was poured out. ‘Faither!’ he cried, ‘I said “deil” to-day; many’s the time I said it, and damnable too, and hellitsh. I ken they’re all right; they’re beeblical. But I didna say them beeblically; I said them for sweir words — that’s the truth of it.’
‘Hout, ye silly bairn!’ said the father, ‘dinna do it nae mair, and come in by to your supper.’ And he took the boy, and drew him close to him a moment, as they went through the door, with something very fond and secret, like a caress between a pair of lovers.
The next day M’Brair was abroad in the afternoon, and had a long advising with Janet on the braes where she herded cattle. What passed was never wholly known; but the lass wept bitterly, and fell on her knees to him among the whins. The same night, as soon as it was dark, he took the road again for Balweary. In the Kirkton, where the dragoons quartered, he saw many lights, and heard the noise of a ranting song and people laughing grossly, which was highly offensive to his mind. He gave it the wider berth, keeping among fields; and came down at last by the water-side, where the manse stands solitary between the river and the road. He tapped at the back door, and the old woman called upon him to come in, and guided him through the house to the study, as they still called it, though there was little enough study there in Haddo’s days, and more song-books than theology.
‘Here’s yin to speak wi’ ye, Mr. Haddie!’ cries the old wife.
And M’Brair, opening the door and entering, found the little, round, red man seated in one chair and his feet upon another. A clear fire and a tallow dip lighted him barely. He was taking tobacco in a pipe, and smiling to himself; and a brandy-bottle and glass, and his fiddle and bow, were beside him on the table.
‘Hech, Patey M’Briar, is this you?’ said he, a trifle tipsily. ‘Step in by, man, and have a drop brandy: for the stomach’s sake! Even the deil can quote Scripture — eh, Patey?’
‘I will neither eat nor drink with you,’ replied M’Brair. ‘I am come upon my Master’s errand: woe be upon me if I should anyways mince the same. Hall Haddo, I summon you to quit this kirk which you encumber.’
‘Muckle obleeged!’ says Haddo, winking.
‘You and me have been to kirk and market together,’ pursued M’Brair; ‘we have had blessed seasons in the kirk, we have sat in the same teaching-rooms and read in the same book; and I know you still retain for me some carnal kindness. It would be my shame if I denied it; I live here at your mercy and by your favour, and glory to acknowledge it. You have pity on my wretched body, which is but grass, and must soon be trodden under: but O, Haddo! how much greater is the yearning with which I yearn after and pity your immortal soul! Come now, let us reason together! I drop all points of controversy, weighty though these be; I take your defaced and damnified kirk on your own terms; and I ask you, Are you a worthy minister? The communion season approaches; how can you pronounce thir solemn words, “The elders will now bring forrit the elements,” and not quail? A parishioner may be summoned to-night; you may have to rise from your miserable orgies; and I ask you, Haddo, what does your conscience tell you? Are you fit? Are you fit to smooth the pillow of a parting Christian? And if the summons should be for yourself, how then?’
Haddo was startled out of all composure and the better part of his temper. ‘What’s this of it?’ he cried. ‘I’m no waur than my neebours. I never set up to be speeritual; I never did. I’m a plain, canty creature; godliness is cheerfulness, says I; give me my fiddle and a dram, and I wouldna hairm a flee.’
‘And I repeat my question,’ said M’Brair: ‘Are you fit — fit for this great charge? fit to carry and save souls?’
‘Fit? Blethers! As fit’s yoursel’,’ cried Haddo.
‘Are you so great a self-deceiver?’ said M’Brair. ‘Wretched man, trampler upon God’s covenants, crucifier of your Lord afresh. I will ding you to the earth with one word: How about the young woman, Janet M’Clour?’
‘Weel, what about her? what do I ken?’ cries Haddo. ‘M’Brair, ye daft auld wife, I tell ye as true’s truth, I never meddled her. It was just daffing, I tell ye: daffing, and nae mair: a piece of fun, like! I’m no denying but what I’m fond of fun, sma’ blame to me! But for onything sarious — hout, man, it might come to a deposeetion! I’ll sweir it to ye. Where’s a Bible, till you hear me sweir?’
‘There is nae Bible in your study,’ said M’Brair severely.
And Haddo, after a few distracted turns, was constrained to accept the fact.
‘Weel, and suppose there isna?’ he cried, stamping. ‘What mair can ye say of us, but just that I’m fond of my joke, and so’s she? I declare to God, by what I ken, she might be the Virgin Mary — if she would just keep clear of the dragoons. But me! na, deil haet o’ me!’
‘She is penitent at least,’ says M’Brair.
‘Do you mean to actually up and tell me to my face that she accused me?’ cried the curate.
‘I canna just say that,’ replied M’Brair. ‘But I rebuked her in the name of God, and she repented before me on her bended knees.’
‘Weel, I daursay she’s been ower far wi’ the dragoons,’ said Haddo. ‘I never denied that. I ken naething by it.’
‘Man, you but show your nakedness the more plainly,’ said M’Brair. ‘Poor, blind, besotted creature — and I see you stoytering on the brink of dissolution: your light out, and your hours numbered. Awake, man!’ he shouted with a formidable voice, ‘awake, or it be ower late.’
‘Be damned if I stand this!’ exclaimed Haddo, casting his tobacco-pipe violently on the table, where it was smashed in pieces. ‘Out of my house with ye, or I’ll call for the dragoons.’
‘The speerit of the Lord is upon me,’ said M’Brair with solemn ecstasy. ‘I sist you to compear before the Great White Throne, and I warn you the summons shall be bloody and sudden.’
And at this, with more agility than could have been expected, he got clear of the room and slammed the door behind him in the face of the pursuing curate. The next Lord’s day the curate was ill, and the kirk closed, but for all his ill words, Mr. M’Brair abode unmolested in the house of Montroymont.