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Chapter 6

UMQUILE THE MASTER OF LOVAT


There was a man waiting us in Prestongrange's study, whom I distasted at
the first look, as we distaste a ferret or an earwig. He was bitter
ugly, but seemed very much of a gentleman; had still manners, but
capable of sudden leaps and violences; and a small voice, which could
ring out shrill and dangerous when he so desired.

The Advocate presented us in a familiar, friendly way.

"Here, Fraser," said he, "here is Mr. Balfour whom we talked about. Mr.
David, this is Mr. Symon Fraser, whom we used to call by another title,
but that is an old song. Mr. Fraser has an errand to you."

With that he stepped aside to his book-shelves, and made believe to
consult a quarto volume in the far end.

I was thus left (in a sense) alone with perhaps the last person in the
world I had expected. There was no doubt upon the terms of introduction;
this could be no other than the forfeited Master of Lovat and chief of
the great clan Fraser. I knew he had led his men in the Rebellion; I
knew his father's head--my old lord's, that grey fox of the
mountains--to have fallen on the block for that offence, the lands of
the family to have been seized, and their nobility attainted. I could
not conceive what he should be doing in Grant's house; I could not
conceive that he had been called to the bar, had eaten all his
principles, and was now currying favour with the Government even to the
extent of acting Advocate-Depute in the Appin murder.

"Well, Mr. Balfour," said he, "what is all this I hear of ye?"

"It would not become me to prejudge," said I, "but if the Advocate was
your authority he is fully possessed of my opinions."

"I may tell you I am engaged in the Appin case," he went on; "I am to
appear under Prestongrange; and from my study of the precognitions I can
assure you your opinions are erroneous. The guilt of Breck is manifest;
and your testimony, in which you admit you saw him on the hill at the
very moment, will certify his hanging."

"It will be rather ill to hang him till you catch him," I observed. "And
for other matters I very willingly leave you to your own impressions."

"The Duke has been informed," he went on. "I have just come from his
Grace, and he expressed himself before me with an honest freedom like
the great nobleman he is. He spoke of you by name, Mr. Balfour, and
declared his gratitude beforehand in case you would be led by those who
understand your own interests and those of the country so much better
than yourself. Gratitude is no empty expression in that mouth: _experto
crede_. I daresay you know something of my name and clan, and the
damnable example and lamented end of my late father, to say nothing of
my own errata. Well, I have made my peace with that good Duke; he has
intervened for me with our friend Prestongrange; and here I am with my
foot in the stirrup again and some of the responsibility shared into my
hand of prosecuting King George's enemies and avenging the late daring
and barefaced insult to his Majesty."

"Doubtless a proud position for your father's son," says I.

He wagged his bald eyebrows at me. "You are pleased to make experiments
in the ironical, I think," said he. "But I am here upon duty, I am here
to discharge my errand in good faith, it is in vain you think to divert
me. And let me tell you, for a young fellow of spirit and ambition like
yourself, a good shove in the beginning will do more than ten years'
drudgery. The shove is now at your command; choose what you will to be
advanced in, the Duke will watch upon you with the affectionate
disposition of a father."

"I am thinking that I lack the docility of the son," says I.

"And do you really suppose, sir, that the whole policy of this country
is to be suffered to trip up and tumble down for an ill-mannered colt of
a boy?" he cried. "This has been made a test case, all who would prosper
in the future must put a shoulder to the wheel. Look at me! Do you
suppose it is for my pleasure that I put myself in the highly invidious
position of prosecuting a man that I have drawn the sword alongside of?
The choice is not left me."

"But I think, sir, that you forfeited your choice when you mixed in with
that unnatural rebellion," I remarked. "My case is happily otherwise; I
am a true man, and can look either the Duke or King George in the face
without concern."

"Is it so the wind sits?" says he. "I protest you are fallen in the
worst sort of error. Prestongrange has been hitherto so civil (he tells
me) as not to combat your allegations; but you must not think they are
not looked upon with strong suspicion. You say you are innocent. My dear
sir, the facts declare you guilty."

"I was waiting for you there," said I.

"The evidence of Mungo Campbell; your flight after the completion of the
murder; your long course of secresy--my good young man!" said Mr. Symon,
"here is enough evidence to hang a bullock, let be a David Balfour! I
shall be upon that trial; my voice shall be raised; I shall then speak
much otherwise from what I do to-day, and far less to your
gratification, little as you like it now! Ah, you look white!" cries he.
"I have found the key of your impudent heart. You look pale, your eyes
waver, Mr. David! You see the grave and the gallows nearer by than you
had fancied."

"I own to a natural weakness," said I. "I think no shame for that. Shame
. . ." I was going on.

"Shame waits for you on the gibbet," he broke in.

"Where I shall but be even'd with my lord your father," said I.

"Aha, but not so!" he cried, "and you do not yet see to the bottom of
this business. My father suffered in a great cause, and for dealing in
the affairs of kings. You are to hang for a dirty murder about
boddle-pieces. Your personal part in it, the treacherous one of holding
the poor wretch in talk, your accomplices a pack of ragged Highland
gillies. And it can be shown, my great Mr. Balfour--it can be shown, and
it _will_ be shown, trust _me_ that has a finger in the pie--it can be
shown, and shall be shown, that you were paid to do it. I think I can
see the looks go round the court when I adduce my evidence, and it shall
appear that you, a young man of education, let yourself be corrupted to
this shocking act for a suit of cast clothes, a bottle of Highland
spirits, and three-and-fivepence-halfpenny in copper money."

There was a touch of the truth in these words that knocked
me like a blow: clothes, a bottle of _usquebaugh_, and
three-and-fivepence-halfpenny in change made up, indeed, the most of what
Alan and I had carried from Aucharn; and I saw that some of James's
people had been blabbing in their dungeons.

"You see I know more than you fancied," he resumed in triumph. "And as
for giving it this turn, great Mr. David, you must not suppose the
Government of Great Britain and Ireland will ever be stuck for want of
evidence. We have men here in prison who will swear out their lives as
we direct them; as I direct, if you prefer the phrase. So now you are to
guess your part of glory if you choose to die. On the one hand, life,
wine, women, and a duke to be your hand-gun; on the other, a rope to
your craig, and a gibbet to clatter your bones on, and the lousiest,
lowest story to hand down to your namesakes in the future that was ever
told about a hired assassin. And see here!" he cried, with a formidable
shrill voice, "see this paper that I pull out of my pocket. Look at the
name there: it is the name of the great David, I believe, the ink scarce
dry yet. Can you guess its nature? It is the warrant for your arrest,
which I have but to touch this bell beside me to have executed on the
spot. Once in the Tolbooth upon this paper, may God help you, for the
die is cast!"

I must never deny that I was greatly horrified by so much baseness, and
much unmanned by the immediacy and ugliness of my danger. Mr. Symon had
already gloried in the changes of my hue; I make no doubt I was now no
ruddier than my shirt; my speech besides trembled.

"There is a gentleman in this room," cried I. "I appeal to him. I put my
life and credit in his hands."

Prestongrange shut his book with a snap. "I told you so, Symon," said
he; "you have played your hand for all it was worth, and you have lost.
Mr. David," he went on, "I wish you to believe it was by no choice of
mine you were subjected to this proof. I wish you could understand how
glad I am you should come forth from it with so much credit. You may not
quite see how, but it is a little of a service to myself. For had our
friend here been more successful than I was last night, it might have
appeared that he was a better judge of men than I; it might have
appeared we were altogether in the wrong situations, Mr. Symon and
myself. And I know our friend Symon to be ambitious," says he, striking
lightly on Fraser's shoulder. "As for this stage play, it is over; my
sentiments are very much engaged in your behalf; and whatever issue we
can find to this unfortunate affair, I shall make it my business to see
it is adopted with tenderness to you."

These were very good words, and I could see besides that there was
little love, and perhaps a spice of genuine ill-will, between those two
who were opposed to me. For all that, it was unmistakable this interview
had been designed, perhaps rehearsed, with the consent of both; it was
plain my adversaries were in earnest to try me by all methods; and now
(persuasion, flattery, and menaces having been tried in vain) I could
not but wonder what would be their next expedient. My eyes besides were
still troubled, and my knees loose under me, with the distress of the
late ordeal; and I could do no more than stammer the same form of words:
"I put my life and credit in your hands."

"Well, well," says he, "we must try to save them. And in the meanwhile
let us return to gentler methods. You must not bear any grudge upon my
friend, Mr. Symon, who did but speak by his brief. And even if you did
conceive some malice against myself, who stood by and seemed rather to
hold a candle, I must not let that extend to innocent members of my
family. These are greatly engaged to see more of you, and I cannot
consent to have my young women-folk disappointed. To-morrow they will be
going to Hope Park, where I think it very proper you should make your
bow. Call for me first, when I may possibly have something for your
private hearing; then you shall be turned abroad again under the conduct
of my misses; and until that time repeat to me your promise of secrecy."

I had done better to have instantly refused, but in truth I was beside
the power of reasoning; did as I was bid; took my leave I know not how;
and when I was forth again in the close, and the door had shut behind
me, was glad to lean on a house wall and wipe my face. That horrid
apparition (as I may call it) of Mr. Symon rang in my memory, as a
sudden noise rings after it is over on the ear. Tales of the man's
father, of his falseness, of his manifold perpetual treacheries, rose
before me from all that I had heard and read, and joined on with what I
had just experienced of himself. Each time it occurred to me, the
ingenious foulness of that calumny he had proposed to nail upon my
character startled me afresh. The case of the man upon the gibbet by
Leith Walk appeared scarce distinguishable from that I was now to
consider as my own. To rob a child of so little more than nothing was
certainly a paltry enterprise for two grown men; but my own tale, as it
was to be represented in a court by Symon Fraser, appeared a fair second
in every possible point of view of sordidness and cowardice.

The voices of two of Prestongrange's liveried men upon his doorstep
recalled me to myself.

"Ha'e," said the one, "this billet as fast as ye can link to the
captain."

"Is that for the cateran back again?" asked the other.

"It would seem sae," returned the first. "Him and Symon are seeking
him."

"I think Prestongrange is gane gyte," says the second. "He'll have James
More in bed with him next."

"Weel, it's neither your affair nor mine's," says the first.

And they parted, the one upon his errand, and the other back into the
house.

This looked as ill as possible. I was scarce gone and they were sending
already for James More, to whom I thought Mr. Symon must have pointed
when he spoke of men in prison and ready to redeem their lives by all
extremities. My scalp curdled among my hair, and the next moment the
blood leaped in me to remember Catriona. Poor lass! her father stood to
be hanged for pretty indefensible misconduct. What was yet more
unpalatable, it now seemed he was prepared to save his four quarters by
the worst of shame and the most foul of cowardly murders--murder by the
false oath; and to complete our misfortunes, it seemed myself was picked
out to be the victim.

I began to walk swiftly and at random, conscious only of a desire for
movement, air, and the open country.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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