Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 16

THE MISSING WITNESS


On the seventeenth, the day I was trysted with the Writer, I had much
rebellion against fate. The thought of him waiting in the _King's Arms_,
and of what he would think, and what he would say when next we met,
tormented and oppressed me. The truth was unbelievable, so much I had to
grant, and it seemed cruel hard I should be posted as a liar and a
coward, and have never consciously omitted what it was possible that I
should do. I repeated this form of words with a kind of bitter relish,
and re-examined in that light the steps of my behaviour. It seemed I had
behaved to James Stewart as a brother might; all the past was a picture
that I could be proud of, and there was only the present to consider. I
could not swim the sea, nor yet fly in the air, but there was always
Andie. I had done him a service, he liked me; I had a lever there to
work on; if it were just for decency, I must try once more with Andie.

It was late afternoon; there was no sound in all the Bass but the lap
and bubble of a very quiet sea; and my four companions were all crept
apart, the three Macgregors higher on the rock, and Andie with his Bible
to a sunny place among the ruins; there I found him in deep sleep, and,
as soon as he was awake, appealed to him with some fervour of manner and
a good show of argument.

"If I thoucht it was to do guid to ye, Shaws!" said he, staring at me
over his spectacles.

"It's to save another," said I, "and to redeem my word. What would be
more good than that? Do ye no mind the scripture, Andie? And you with
the Book upon your lap! _What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole
world?"_

"Ay," said he, "that's grand for you. But where do I come in? I have my
word to redeem the same's yoursel'. And what are ye asking me to do, but
just to sell it ye for siller?"

"Andie! have I named the name of siller?" cried I.

"Ou, the name's naething," said he; "the thing is there, whatever. It
just comes to this; if I am to service ye the way that you propose, I'll
loss my lieihood. Then it's clear ye'll have to make it up to me, and a
pickle mair, for your ain credit like. And what's that but just a bribe?
And if even I was certain of the bribe! But by a' that I can learn, it's
far frae that; and if _you_ were to hang, where would _I_ be? Na: the
thing's no possible. And just awa' wi' ye like a bonny lad! and let
Andie read his chapter."

I remember I was at bottom a good deal gratified with this result; and
the next humour I fell into was one (I had near said) of gratitude to
Prestongrange, who had saved me, in this violent, illegal manner, out of
the midst of my dangers, temptations, and perplexities. But this was
both too flimsy and too cowardly to last me long, and the remembrance of
James began to succeed to the possession of my spirits. The 21st, the
day set for the trial, I passed in such misery of mind as I can scarce
recall to have endured, save perhaps upon Isle Earraid only. Much of the
time I lay on a braeside betwixt sleep and waking, my body motionless,
my mind full of violent thoughts. Sometimes I slept indeed; but the
court-house of Inverary and the prisoner glancing on all sides to find
his missing witness, followed me in slumber; and I would wake again with
a start to darkness of spirit and distress of body. I thought Andie
seemed to observe me, but I paid him little heed. Verily, my bread was
bitter to me, and my days a burthen.

Early the next morning (Friday, 22nd) a boat came with provisions, and
Andie placed a packet in my hand. The cover was without address but
sealed with a Government seal. It enclosed two notes. "Mr. Balfour can
now see for himself it is too late to meddle. His conduct will be
observed and his discretion rewarded." So ran the first, which seemed to
be laboriously writ with the left hand. There was certainly nothing in
these expressions to compromise the writer, even if that person could be
found; the seal, which formidably served instead of signature, was
affixed to a separate sheet on which there was no scratch of writing;
and I had to confess that (so far) my adversaries knew what they were
doing, and to digest as well as I was able the threat that peeped under
the promise.

But the second enclosure was by far the more surprising. It was in a
lady's hand of writ. "_Maister Dauvit Balfour is informed a friend was
speiring for him, and her eyes were of the grey_," it ran--and seemed so
extraordinary a piece to come to my hands at such a moment and under
cover of a Government seal, that I stood stupid. Catriona's grey eyes
shone in my remembrance. I thought, with a bound of pleasure, she must
be the friend. But who should the writer be, to have her billet thus
enclosed with Prestongrange's? And of all wonders, why was it thought
needful to give me this pleasing but most inconsequential intelligence
upon the Bass? For the writer, I could hit upon none possible except
Miss Grant. Her family, I remembered, had remarked on Catriona's eyes
and even named her for their colour; and she herself had been much in
the habit to address me with a broad pronunciation, by way of a sniff, I
supposed, at my rusticity. No doubt, besides, but she lived in the same
house as this letter came from. So there remained but one step to be
accounted for; and that was how Prestongrange should have permitted her
at all in an affair so secret, or let her daft-like billet go in the
same cover with his own. But even here I had a glimmering. For, first of
all, there was something rather alarming about the young lady, and papa
might be more under her domination than I knew. And second, there was
the man's continual policy to be remembered, how his conduct had been
continually mingled with caresses, and he had scarce ever, in the midst
of so much contention, laid aside a mask of friendship. He must conceive
that my imprisonment had incensed me. Perhaps this little jesting,
friendly message was intended to disarm my rancour?

I will be honest--and I think it did. I felt a sudden warmth towards
that beautiful Miss Grant, that she should stoop to so much interest in
my affairs. The summoning up of Catriona moved me of itself to milder
and more cowardly counsels. If the Advocate knew of her and of our
acquaintance--if I should please him by some of that "discretion" at
which his letter pointed--to what might not this lead? _In vain is the
net spread in the sight of any fowl_, the scripture says. Well, fowls
must be wiser than folk! For I thought I perceived the policy, and yet
fell in with it.

I was in this frame, my heart beating, the grey eyes plain before me
like two stars, when Andie broke in upon my musing.

"I see ye hae gotten guid news," said he.

I found him looking curiously in my face; with that, there came before
me like a vision of James Stewart and the court of Inverary; and my mind
turned at once like a door upon its hinges. Trials, I reflected,
sometimes draw out longer than is looked for. Even if I came to Inverary
just too late, something might yet be attempted in the interests of
James--and in those of my own character, the best would be accomplished.
In a moment, it seemed without thought, I had a plan devised.

"Andie," said I, "is it still to be to-morrow?"

He told me nothing was changed.

"Was anything said about the hour?" I asked.

He told me it was to be two o'clock afternoon.

"And about the place?" I pursued.

"Whatten place?" says Andie.

"The place I'm to be landed at," said I.

He owned there was nothing as to that.

"Very well, then," I said, "this shall be mine to arrange. The wind is
in the east, my road lies westward; keep your boat, I hire it; let us
work up the Forth all day; and land me at two o'clock to-morrow at the
westmost we'll can have reached."

"Ye daft callant!" he cried, "ye would try for Inverary after a'!"

"Just that, Andie," says I.

"Weel, ye're ill to beat!" says he. "And I was kind o' sorry for ye a'
day yesterday," he added. "Ye see, I was never entirely sure till then,
which way of it ye really wantit."

Here was a spur to a lame horse!

"A word in your ear, Andie," said I. "This plan of mine has another
advantage yet. We can leave these Hielandmen behind us on the rock, and
one of your boats from the Castleton can bring them off to-morrow. Yon
Neil has a queer eye when he regards you; maybe, if I was once out of
the gate there might be knives again; these red-shanks are unco
grudgeful. And if there should come to be any question, here is your
excuse. Our lives were in danger by these savages; being answerable for
my safety, you chose the part to bring me from their neighbourhood and
detain me the rest of the time on board your boat; and do you know,
Andie?" says I, with a smile, "I think it was very wisely chosen."

"The truth is I have nae goo for Neil," says Andie, "nor he for me, I'm
thinking; and I would like ill to come to my hands wi' the man. Tam
Anster will make a better hand of it with the cattle onyway." (For this
man, Anster, came from Fife, where the Gaelic is still spoken.) "Ay,
ay!" says Andie, "Tam'll can deal with them the best. And troth! the
mair I think of it, the less I see what way we would be required. The
place--ay, feggs! they had forgot the place. Eh, Shaws, ye're a
lang-heided chield when ye like! Forby that I'm awing ye my life," he
added, with more solemnity, and offered me his hand upon the bargain.

Whereupon, with scarce more words, we stepped suddenly on board the
boat, cast off, and set the lug. The Gregara were then busy upon
breakfast, for the cookery was their usual part; but, one of them
stepping to the battlements, our flight was observed before we were
twenty fathoms from the rock; and the three of them ran about the ruins
and the landing-shelf, for all the world like ants about a broken nest,
hailing and crying on us to return. We were still in both the lee and
the shadow of the rock, which last lay broad upon the waters, but
presently came forth in almost the same moment into the wind and
sunshine; the sail filled, the boat heeled to the gunwale, and we swept
immediately beyond sound of the men's voices. To what terrors they
endured upon the rock, where they were now deserted without the
countenance of any civilised person or so much as the protection of a
Bible, no limit can be set; nor had they any brandy left to be their
consolation, for even in the haste and secrecy of our departure Andie
had managed to remove it.

It was our first care to set Anster ashore in a cove by the Glenteithy
Rocks, so that the deliverance of our maroons might be duly seen to the
next day. Thence we kept away up Firth. The breeze, which was then so
spirited, swiftly declined, but never wholly failed us. All day we kept
moving, though often not much more; and it was after dark ere we were up
with the Queensferry. To keep the letter of Andie's engagement (or what
was left of it) I must remain on board, but I thought no harm to
communicate with the shore in writing. On Prestongrange's cover, where
the Government seal must have a good deal surprised my correspondent, I
writ, by the boat's lantern, a few necessary words, and Andie carried
them to Rankeillor. In about an hour he came aboard again, with a purse
of money and the assurance that a good horse should be standing saddled
for me by two to-morrow at Clackmannan Pool. This done, and the boat
riding by her stone anchor, we lay down to sleep under the sail.

We were in the Pool the next day long ere two; and there was nothing
left for me but sit and wait. I felt little alacrity upon my errand. I
would have been glad of any passable excuse to lay it down; but none
being to be found, my uneasiness was no less great than if I had been
running to some desired pleasure. By shortly after one the horse was at
the waterside, and I could see a man walking it to and fro till I should
land, which vastly swelled my impatience. Andie ran the moment of my
liberation very fine, showing himself a man of his bare word, but scarce
serving his employers with a heaped measure; and by about fifty seconds
after two I was in the saddle and on the full stretch for Stirling. In a
little more than an hour I had passed that town, and was already
mounting Alan Water side, when the weather broke in a small tempest. The
rain blinded me, the wind had nearly beat me from the saddle, and the
first darkness of the night surprised me in a wilderness still some way
east of Balwhidder, not very sure of my direction and mounted on a horse
that began already to be weary.

In the press of my hurry, and to be spared the delay and annoyance of a
guide, I had followed (so far as it was possible for any horseman) the
line of my journey with Alan. This I did with open eyes, foreseeing a
great risk in it, which the tempest had now brought to a reality. The
last that I knew of where I was, I think it must have been about Uam
Var; the hour perhaps six at night. I must still think it great good
fortune that I got about eleven to my destination, the house of Duncan
Dhu. Where I had wandered in the interval perhaps the horse could tell.
I know we were twice down, and once over the saddle and for a moment
carried away in a roaring burn. Steed and rider were bemired up to the
eyes.

From Duncan I had news of the trial. It was followed in all these
Highland regions with religious interest; news of it spread from
Inverary as swift as men could travel; and I was rejoiced to learn that,
up to a late hour that Saturday, it was not yet concluded; and all men
began to suppose it must spread over to the Monday. Under the spur of
this intelligence I would not sit to eat; but, Duncan having agreed to
be my guide, took the road again on foot, with the piece in my hand and
munching as I went. Duncan brought with him a flask of usquebaugh and a
hand-lantern; which last enlightened us just so long as we could find
houses where to rekindle it, for the thing leaked outrageously and blew
out with every gust. The more part of the night we walked blindfold
among sheets of rain, and day found us aimless on the mountains. Hard by
we struck a hut on a burn-side, where we got a bite and a direction;
and, a little before the end of the sermon, came to the kirk doors of
Inverary.

The rain had somewhat washed the upper parts of me, but I was still
bogged as high as to the knees; I streamed water; I was so weary I could
hardly limp, and my face was like a ghost's. I stood certainly more in
need of a change of raiment and a bed to lie on, than of all the
benefits in Christianity. For all which (being persuaded the chief point
for me was to make myself immediately public) I set the door open,
entered that church with the dirty Duncan at my tails, and finding a
vacant place hard by, sat down.

"Thirteenthly, my brethren, and in parenthesis, the law itself must be
regarded as a means of grace," the minister was saying, in the voice of
one delighting to pursue an argument.

The sermon was in English on account of the assize. The judges were
present with their armed attendants, the halberts glittered in a corner
by the door, and the seats were thronged beyond custom with the array of
lawyers. The text was in Romans 5th and 13th--the minister a skilled
hand; and the whole of that able churchful--from Argyle, and my Lords
Elchies and Kilkerran, down to the halbertmen that came in their
attendance--was sunk with gathered brows in a profound critical
attention. The minister himself and a sprinkling of those about the door
observed our entrance at the moment and immediately forgot the same; the
rest either did not hear or would not heed; and I sat there amongst my
friends and enemies unremarked.

The first that I singled out was Prestongrange. He sat well forward,
like an eager horseman in the saddle, his lips moving with relish, his
eyes glued on the minister: the doctrine was clearly to his mind.
Charles Stewart, on the other hand, was half asleep, and looked harassed
and pale. As for Symon Fraser, he appeared like a blot, and almost a
scandal, in the midst of that attentive congregation, digging his hands
in his pockets, shifting his legs, clearing his throat, rolling up his
bald eyebrows and shooting out his eyes to right and left, now with a
yawn, now with a secret smile. At times too, he would take the Bible in
front of him, run it through, seem to read a bit, run it through again,
and stop and yawn prodigiously: the whole as if for exercise.

In the course of this restlessness his eye alighted on myself. He sat a
second stupefied, than tore a half leaf out of the Bible, scrawled upon
it with a pencil, and passed it with a whispered word to his next
neighbor. The note came to Prestongrange, who gave me but the one look;
thence it voyaged to the hands of Mr. Erskine; thence again to Argyle,
where he sat between the other two lords of session, and his Grace
turned and fixed me with an arrogant eye. The last of those interested
to observe my presence was Charlie Stewart, and he too began to pencil
and hand about despatches, none of which I was able to trace to their
destination in the crowd.

But the passage of these notes had aroused notice; all who were in the
secret (or supposed themselves to be so) were whispering
information--the rest questions; and the minister himself seemed quite
discountenanced by the flutter in the church and sudden stir and
whispering. His voice changed, he plainly faltered, nor did he again
recover the easy conviction and full tones of his delivery. It would be
a puzzle to him till his dying day, why a sermon that had gone with
triumph through four parts, should thus miscarry in the fifth.

As for me, I continued to sit there, very wet and weary, and a good deal
anxious as to what should happen next, but greatly exulting in my
success.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Sorry, no summary available yet.